FORT EUSTIS, Virginia - - Soldiers from the 688th Rapid Port Opening Element wrapped up four days of field training April 28, in which they found themselves getting grilled by foreign journalists in the pretend disaster stricken country of Crimsonia.
""Media on the Battlefield" training is designed to prepare deploying Soldiers for the high probability of unexpected media encounters," said Capt. Justin Rhodes, 688th RPOE commander. "Our RPOEs responded to the devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010, the Ebola crisis in Liberia in 2014, and again to Haiti in the wake of Hurricane Matthew in October of last year. During each of these deployments, the RPOEs encountered local, national and international media who were interested in our role in responding to the humanitarian crises."
The RPOEs are small, specialized Army units tasked with working closely with Air Force units to quickly fly into crisis and disaster areas to aid in the supply of humanitarian or other assistance.
There are only three RPOEs in the U.S. Army and they all fall under the command of the 833rd Transportation Battalion, 597th Transportation Brigade at Fort Eustis, Virginia. The RPOEs rotate through three-month deployment alert cycles and must deploy with all vehicles, equipment and personnel within 24 hours of an alert notification.
"Our primary mission is to be the first boots on the ground during rapid deployment operations as part of a Joint Task Force - Port Opening team," Rhodes said. "With our Air Force counterparts, we are tasked with setting up air port logistic facilities in preparation for the potential influx of personnel, equipment and humanitarian aid."
Public affairs specialists from the Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command's 597th Transportation Brigade posed as international media during the exercise and evaluated the Soldiers' interaction with mock media.
"Our goal was to see how they would respond to us," said Zack Shelby, public affairs officer for the 597th Transportation Brigade. "Would they be confrontational with us? Would they even speak with us? And if they did speak with us, would they safeguard sensitive military information while still sharing as much information about their mission to satisfy the interest of the media and local population."
Shelby stressed that the end game of the training was to encourage the Soldiers to share their story with the public.
"Our intention was not to get them to flub up by asking uncomfortable questions or getting them to disclose secret information, but rather to get them used to speaking with reporters in a constructive and responsible way," Shelby said. "And that only comes with experience and practice?"
With camera, audio recorder and foreign press credentials in hand, Shelby arrived outside at the 688th RPOE command post to see what he could find out.
"When the media all of a sudden showed up at our site, our first thought was to tell them to go away and that no one wanted to speak to them," said Staff Sgt. Erik Ramirez, 688th RPOE distribution platoon sergeant. "We were right in the middle of setting up our operations when they showed up and the timing couldn't have been worse."
This is not an uncommon first reaction, according to Shelby.
"I know that when we deploy overseas, it is only natural for local folks to wonder what we are doing there and for the news media to want to report on it," Ramirez said. "If we as Soldiers provide them good input for their stories, everyone, including our families back home, will have a better understanding of our deployed mission and how we are helping people as a result."
"Everyone in our platoon carries media engagement cards or "cheat sheets" in their pockets to remind us of our rights and responsibilities when speaking with the media," said Sgt. Mitchel Keeton, 688th RPOE squad leader. "While walking out to meet with the reporter, I read the card and thought about what I needed to do right - check the media's identification and credentials, don't discuss anything that could compromise operational security, don't engage in speculation and most importantly, stay in my lane and talk about what I am personally responsible for."
Shelby asked Keeton the type of questions one would normally expect to hear on the evening news. The topics were broad and the questions ranged from Keeton's personal background, to the purpose of his deployment, to details of his experience in the fictional land of Crimsonia.
"I wanted to see how comfortable Sergeant Keeton was in speaking with me," Shelby said. "Most of the questions I asked were well within his experience and responsibility, but I also wanted to push him and the other Soldiers a little further outside his comfort level to see whether they recognized the need to refer questions to other subject matter experts or even someone at a higher level."
Ramirez and Keeton both felt that the training was beneficial for them and appreciated that the training was aimed at Soldiers of all ranks.
"Our interview skills got better and we felt less threatened by the media with each encounter," Ramirez said. "The media is obviously going to write about us and tell people where and why we are deploying, but if given appropriate answers, I believe that people will better appreciate our deployments and understand our mission."