The Last Mile

“Gas! Gas! Gas!” shouts the Marine instructor and begins counting down from nine. Across the lecture hall, reporters drop doughnuts and spill cups of coffee as they fumble for their masks. As the count hits zero, a quarter of the room is still breathing Saddam’s chemicals, and 15 of our group have become battlefield casualties. One scribe, clearly frustrated by the quick countdown, asks why only nine seconds. “Because at 10 seconds you die,” answers the instructor. Got it.

It’s weapons of mass destruction day, and the attention span of 58 sleep-deprived reporters just got longer. The group is burnt after six days of 5 a.m. wake-up calls, but looking at gruesome picture of mustard gas victims from the Iran-Iraq War has a way of waking people up. The instructors spend all morning running the gamut of deadly chemical and biological agents and teaching about the best way to respond to a battlefield attack. In a nutshell: The chem/bio (MOPP) suits give protection, but the short response time punishes the slow. Should symptoms of chemical exposure (nausea, drooling, convulsions) set in, a series of Atropine injections to the leg are required. If two don’t do the job, you “throw the Hail Mary” and give the third. For the first time all week, every reporter in the room is diligently taking notes.

After class, it’s time to show off what we’ve learned. We gear up in a MOPP suit, mask, boots, and gloves, and troop off to the “confidence chamber.” The squat, cinderblock building is hardly a welcoming site, and one reporter who covered the Tim McVeigh execution remarks how similar it looks to the death chamber in Terre Haute, Ind. The purpose of the exercise is to expose us to a gas environment—in this case, tear gas—and allow us to become more confident with the ability of the chem/bio gear to protect us.

But in short, “confidence” isn’t high. After an entire morning hearing the details about sarin, anthrax, and cyanide, some of us begin to reconsider our line of work—and wonder whether it might be a safer bet to start covering the Department of Transportation beat. Nevertheless, in groups of 10, we file into the hazy chamber and line up against the wall. Upon orders from the Marine instructor, we take the masks on and off, and practice “clearing” techniques to blow tear gas out of the mask. Despite various degrees of burning eyes and skin, our level of exposure is no worse than the average protester at a WTO convention.

As if getting sprayed with tear gas isn’t enough for one day, after the confidence chamber we have the pleasure of spending an hour with Master Sgt. William DuBose, who leads the physical training portion of the program. His biceps are larger than most of our waists, and he seems to have a perverse love of “diamond” pushups. As he swaps off with the other Marine NCOs in leading calisthenics, some of my media brethren begin to run out of steam. But ever a hardy lot, we don’t sustain any casualties. Fortunately, one hour with Master Sg. DuBose entitles us to spend the rest of Thursday night at the bar—the only place at Quantico where a group of reporters can hold their own against their Marine instructors.

Friday is “media crucible” day. It’s the day the Few, the Proud, the Reporters get a final shot at glory with a 5-mile tactical road march. The word around the campfire is that we might get ambushed with a faux chemical attack, and there may be other surprises along the way. Whatever happens will likely end up on CNN, since other members of the media have been invited on base for the day to watch us suffer. So not only do we get to lug out packs up and down the hills of Quantico, but we get to do it in front of members of our profession who dodged media boot camp. The pansies.