A Nausea-Inducing Trip to the USS Iwo Jima

A damage control drill aboard USS Iwo Jima
A damage control drill aboard USS Iwo Jima

It doesn’t take long for the 6-foot swells off the North Carolina coast to have their way with 20 reporters sandwiched in a hovercraft heading out to sea. Sitting in jump seats normally occupied by Marines in full combat gear, we watch each others’ faces turn unnatural shades, and the whole group fights the urge to toss up the ham-bologna-and-cheese sandwich served on the bus. Two colleagues soon succumb. Just as I hand a plastic bag to the newspaper reporter sitting next to me—who looks about ready to follow suit—the Navy’s “Landing Craft Air Cushion” hops its final wave and slides into the belly of the USS Iwo Jima.

Thus begins media boot camp. For seven days, 58 journalists from 31 news organizations are training for war—or, at least as much of the war as the Pentagon will allow us to see. If the Bush administration actually proceeds with a war against Saddam Hussein, the Defense Department is planning to “embed” journalists with military units before they head into Iraq. So for the first time ever, the military is training reporters en masse for the rigors of life in a combat zone.

Gunner's mate first-class Mark Napoli demonstrates a Mark 19 Automatic Grenade Launcher to Mark Mazzetti
Gunner’s mate first-class Mark Napoli demonstrates a Mark 19 Automatic Grenade Launcher to Mark Mazzetti

After receiving requests from more than 400 reporters, the Pentagon chose an initial group of 58 (including one reporter from the United Arab Emirates and another from Russia’s Tass News Service) and plans several more boot camps before any shooting starts in Iraq. The Defense Department picks up most of the tab for the program, with the exception of the meals served during the week. (The cost of the bologna sandwich several of the reporters “refunded” was $3.60.) The idea behind the boot camps is simple: The more reporters experience military life, the less chance there is they will slow down, screw up, or report inaccurately about the military unit they are embedded with. It’s also a way to make the military brass comfortable with once again letting reporters bum rides on the way to war—a policy that, for the most part, was abandoned after Vietnam.

The Navy was in charge of the first two days of the program, with the Marine Corps handling the next five at Quantico, Va. As the media trainees see it, the weekend with the Navy was the calm before the storm. Despite the nausea-inducing trip out to the Iwo Jima, the Navy training was primarily a slate of briefings about shipboard safety procedures and the capabilities of Tomahawk cruise missiles (Shameless Microsoft plug for Slatereaders: The computers the Navy uses to fire Tomahawks run on Windows NT). With the Marines, however, we are expecting the first hour of Full Metal Jacket.

Members of an NBC news crew take part in damage control "wet training" aboard USS Iwo Jima
Members of an NBC news crew take part in damage control “wet training” aboard USS Iwo Jima

Aboard the Iwo Jima, a large-deck amphibious ship sailing off the Atlantic Coast, we are first briefed by the ship’s commanding officer, Capt. John Nawrocki. Our job, he tells us, is to “drink from the veritable fire hose of knowledge.” But we also get a taste of the literal fire hose. During a drill simulating a small-boat attack on the Iwo Jima (similar to al-Qaida’s 2000 attack against the USS Cole), several reporters don protective gear on the helicopter hangar deck and are sprayed by the ship’s emergency fire team. After that, there’s the pipe patching drill, where reporters team up with crewmen under a broken pipe to plug a massive surge of water before it floods the ship.

Demonstration of a Portable Exothermic Cutting Unit
Demonstration of a Portable Exothermic Cutting Unit

The biggest concern for most reporters slated to cover Gulf War II is that Saddam will use chemical or biological weapons, so media boot camp includes seven hours of training to protect against weapons of mass destruction. The Marines are planning to deliver the bulk of the training, including time in a gas chamber (dubbed the “confidence chamber” by Marines with a clumsy sense of euphemism.) But the Navy briefed us about the standard military-issue chem/bio suit and mask and what they protect against. The good news: They protect against nerve agents like Sarin gas. The bad news: They don’t protect against “blood agents” like cyanide, which restrict the ability of blood to absorb oxygen. But there’s a silver lining, according to Chief Petty Officer Dave Rawlin: “The good thing about blood agents is that if you don’t die within the first couple of minutes, you’re going to live.” All are not comforted by this.

We leave on Monday afternoon for Quantico, where the Marines are waiting to get their hands on us.