West Wing Story: You're In The Army Now

"Welcome to the military. Get ready to stand in line," my greeter said when I arrived at Fort Benning, Ga., this week for media boot camp. But this five-day course for reporters who have enlisted to cover the next potential gulf war has meant very little standing still.

I've carried my LCE (load-carrying equipment) on a five-mile march along a muddy red-clay trail. I've awoken at 4 a.m. to do PRT (physical readiness training) alongside real recruits. I've slept in the woods (though in a heated tent on a cot rather than under a "poncho hooch"). I've clearly learned to decode a few acronyms and even use some lingo: I now put on my "snivel gear"--cold-weather clothing that makes you stop "sniveling" about the chilly Georgia mornings. I've also learned to pronounce that ubiquitous Army expression, "Hooah!"--which by their definition means "anything and everything except no."

The military is taking better communications between soldiers and reporters seriously for this likely war. "That crust of Vietnam, the legacy of distrust between the military and the media has got to go away," said Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, the man in charge of this vast Army base, where America's Infantry Training Brigade churns out 14,000 soldiers a year. "I was disappointed by the lack of reporters embedded in Afghanistan, personally. If [the military is] isolated, that serves this country poorly," Eaton told us on our first day here. If all military leaders are as forthright, smart and decent as General Eaton, this country is in very good hands.

The Pentagon, it seems, has warmed to Eaton's enlightened philosophy. Washington learned a lesson from the war in Afghanistan, where reporters had very restricted access to soldiers. As a result, American forces not only had few independent observers to verify their claims, but reporters found other stories to cover that the military often didn't like. With war in Iraq looming, the Pentagon now wants to "embed" reporters with troops everywhere they can. "There is no doubt that our adversary is an avid liar," Brian Whitman, a Pentagon official (and the only man in a suit down here) said of Saddam Hussein. "What better way to confront his lies than to have someone like you on the battlefield."

So here we are. Sixty of us out of about 600 who applied for the course--the second ever sponsored by the Pentagon and the first here at Fort Benning, "Home of the Infantry," the "Queen of Battle." We're not here to shoot anything other than cameras. We will likely walk away with a better knowledge of equipment. We got a jarring ride in the belly of a Bradley fighting vehicle and a scenic flight aboard a Black Hawk helicopter (I got to look straight down at the Chattahoochee River--from the wide open doors!). But first we have to walk away.

There is something intrinsically comedic about a lot of mostly out-of-shape, mostly middle-aged reporters doing--or trying--to do pullups with buff, energetic 20-year-old recruits. (If it hadn't been for two of them, I would never have cleared the bar.) In fact, Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury comic strip got a week's worth of gags out of the first Pentagon-sponsored media training in Quantico, Va., a few weeks ago. But unlike the sorry sops in Trudeau's strip, we have not had a single incident of heat exhaustion (though we do have some chronic crankiness).

The only injury appears to be a reoccurrence of my bum ankle, which I twisted a month ago. I've disappointed quite a few of my colleagues, who initially got excited when they spied me rewrapping my ankle during some exercise. They thought I had hurt myself in training and came running over. To inquire after my health? No, silly, to start filming me as I bandaged my foot. I could make a great "Booted from Media Boot Camp" story. They quickly shut off their cameras in disgust when I explained the truth.

Most of what we're learning here is how not to get hurt and what to do if someone does. Our first day, after our "Hot A" lunch (regular food rather than an MRE, the airtight-packaged, freeze-dried "meal ready to eat"), we did first aid in the field. Of course, it was simulated. But when the Army simulates wounds they don't kid around. We walked onto the "battlefield" to find soldiers sitting in pools of fake blood with realistic-looking broken bones jutting out of legs and arms and even necks. It was gross. At media boot camp you can't say, "I don't want to put a field dressing on that guy because I don't want to get fake blood all over my jeans."

The reality of what we are all training for hits me at odd times. Like in the predawn haze during PRT. As we marched with these young kids, many of whom enlisted because of 9-11, I was jolted by their chant: "Trained to Kill! Kill We Will!" Some of these guys could be sent to Iraq in a few months and yet the only thing many of them seemed to know about the impending war was what they heard on what they call the "Joe Network"--gossip amongst themselves.

The infantrymen (women still don't fight on the front lines during combat) do know their training. The young privates we met had been doing PRT in heavy, hot chemical suits and gas masks, the same kind we tried on today in our NBC (nuclear, biological, chemical) warfare class. The suit, which is lined with a wetsuit-like insulation containing charcoal, took forever to put on. Then they had us enter the "gas chamber." While the tear gas seeped into the room, they told us to lift the mask off our face so we could practice resealing and clearing it without getting tear gas in our eyes. I chickened out. I didn't want to start crying for real.