Switching Sides - From Soldier to Journalist
April 22, 2010
- role-playing embedded journalist
FORT WAINWRIGHT, Alaska - The 1-24 battalion commander's instructions seemed clear enough: go down to the Alert Holding Area and write a story about the platoons training there the following week. Easy enough, I thought as I walked out of Lt. Col. Jeff Stewart's office. The gig got even better when I found out I could wear civilian clothes - an especially savory temptation for a staff officer.
Granted I don't have much experience with journalism or creative writing outside of what I had learned in high school, but I was up for the challenge. Later that day, Maj. William Prayner, the S3, told me to grab one of my Soldiers from the intelligence section and use him as my photographer. I hung a camera around his neck and voila! From my perspective we definitely looked legitimate.
The initial plan was simple; the S3 soon realized though, that we could derive significant training from this event and so we expanded the original idea. Instead of me simply standing in the training area taking notes and pictures, the S3 suggested I act as an embedded journalist by asking Soldiers tough questions and capturing their responses on film. The more I thought about it the more I realized how useful this would be. First of all, the Soldiers of 1st 1st Platoon Charlie Company would be forced to deal with a reporting team. They would learn how to keep control of a nosey photographer and would experience just exactly what it takes to dominate an interview and promote the Army's message. Secondly, we in the S2 section could gauge the level of knowledge our Soldiers have about the people, culture and landscape into which they will soon be dropped. Analysis of their responses would provide me with a better understanding of what Soldiers at the ground level still need to learn so that I in turn could work with my section to create useful and truly meaningful intelligence products.
The following week on the morning of March 24, Pvt. Kevin Cyr and I drove over to the AHA with everything we needed: casual civilian clothes (to include my old Transformers t-shirt and faded jeans), press passes, notepad, camera and a slightly obnoxious attitude. The training officer in command introduced us to 1st 1st platoon's officer, 2nd Lt. Patrick Forliti. For a time, Pvt. Cyr and I were unaccompanied, taking photos of the Strykers and of all the equipment that had been laid out in front of them. I chatted with a few soldiers and asked probing questions about the vehicles and their capabilities. When we attempted to photograph the inside of a Stryker, several NCOs in the platoon sternly told us that it was unauthorized and demanded that we delete all pictures on our camera. I initially protested but eventually complied and it was at this point the company first sergeant, 1st Sgt. Christopher Newsom, called for an escort to keep us under control. The change in the atmosphere was almost instant.
While before we had caused chaos and confusion, we were now reduced to doing only that which the Soldiers allowed us to do. We photographed only what they said we could photograph and we questioned only those Soldiers whom they offered for interview. The Soldiers now set the tone. I lobbed softballs and wailed sizzling fastballs but rarely did they fail to respond with professionalism and tact while at the same time protecting operational security. We also received a brief on the main capabilities of the Stryker vehicle and the platoon leader, and platoon sergeant trained us (along with their Soldiers) on react-to-contact drills. Pvt. Cyr and I packed up our stuff and made plans to return the following day for more interviews and training. We then headed back to battalion headquarters to analyze Day 1.
We recognized two trends right away. First, Soldiers were very reluctant to talk about the locations of their past and future deployments, despite the fact that almost anyone could browse U.S. newspapers and notice that almost one-hundred percent of the coverage of military engagements from 2001 to present has focused on either Iraq or Afghanistan. This reluctance fostered a sort of doubt about the Soldiers' honesty on our part and it is not hard for me to imagine that actual journalists might be slightly offended by this disingenuousness. On the other hand it was clear that their guarded responses stemmed from a desire to protect potentially sensitive information, so my critique is really more of perception than of purpose.
Secondly, the Soldiers displayed only a basic understanding of the environment and threat in Afghanistan. Though this is natural and expected of any newly-forming unit it indicates to me that the S2 section will play a critical role in increasing these Soldiers' situational awareness in the future. Afghanistan is not Iraq and we as a unit can't afford to shoe-horn our assumptions about one country into the other's individual situation. And just as knowledge can be pushed down to the companies of our battalion from above, so too can platoons and squads actively seek it out. At times, everything that's out there can be hard to digest, but a deep understanding of the enemy and the people is nevertheless a crucial ingredient in the recipe for success when it comes to fighting a counterinsurgency war.
With our initial analysis complete, Pvt. Cyr and I returned to the AHA bright and early the next day. Building on the previous day our goal was to push questions which were a little more sensitive in nature. I asked a group of soldiers to comment on the possibility of rolling back the "don't ask, don't tell" policy and I got responses ranging from philosophical to pragmatic to morally indifferent. When I questioned a private and a specialist about their feelings on the new battalion commander vis-AfA -vis the old one, I received a degree of nuance which frankly I hadn't expected from Soldiers of their rank.
Perhaps the greatest part of all came when we rode along on a simulated mission. I wanted to see how 2nd Lt. Forliti's Soldiers would respond to questions in the heat of action. After receiving a change of mission the Soldiers dismounted their vehicles assumed a security perimeter and kept a watchful eye as the platoon leader quickly drew up his plan. The platoon left the vehicles behind and continued on foot, only minutes later to be hammered with indirect fires. I caught this surprise attack, as well as the ensuing chaos, on film in real time while Pvt. Cyr snapped ultra-real photos of the scene. Although we constantly groped for information about the current situation everyone stayed calm and managed to execute their tasks despite the added burden of answering us. The Soldiers had moved their wounded buddies a few thousand meters down the road before finally linking up with a friendly unit. The final task was to conduct a hasty defense of the area, fighting off green faceless torsos who kept "standing" up at remarkably predictable distances. When all was said and done the group conducted an after- action review to highlight the mission's strengths and identify things that could be improved upon for next time.
I had a great time hanging out with 1st 1st Platoon, Company C. The experience was valuable for many different groups - the soldiers of the unit, the S2 section, the battalion leadership - and I believe that what I learned will be processed and eventually get fed back into the training cycle.
The most important thing I learned over those two days was this: the media are not the military's enemy. Granted, if left unchecked an ambitious reporter with an agenda can really do a lot of damage and even indirectly put troops in harm's way. But when a Soldier takes control of an interview and paints the picture on his terms, a reporter can suddenly amplify the Army story and end up shaping the perceptions of people who are getting the story. That's why it seems important to train our Soldiers to seek out and respond professionally to reporters rather than run from them. Even though I'm glad to put my S2 cap back on and get back to thinking about the bad guys, the lessons I learned from my time spent on the "other side" of the uniform won't soon be forgotten.