Monday, March 31, 2003

Heading Downrange

KUWAIT CITY - It was painful to sit the first week of the war on the sidelines. I was on an assignment to document the American Forces Network Europe’s 60th anniversary by interviewing former AFN’ers in Florida. That’s when bombs started falling over Baghdad.

Each day I sat and watched the events unfold on CNN and NBC, and watched as embedded reporters charged on top of M1-A1 Abrams tanks across the line of departure in Kuwait and headed north towards Baghdad. Each time a report aired from the battlefield, I kept saying to myself, “That’s where I should be.”

I’ve been preparing for this war ever since 9/11. It was easy to see from the increased reporting that Iraq was squarely in President Bush’s sights.

My trip to Afghanistan last summer was the first step in a learning process about what it’s like to be involved in covering real conflict, with real soldiers.

That education continued in Kuwait last November and December when I visited several desert camps to document what it was like for these soldiers to be deployed during increased tensions. We visited the Udari bombing range and covered live fire exercises, and ate and slept with soldiers in the sandbox. The same was true of our mission on board the Nimitz Class Aircraft Carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in the North Arabian Gulf. Just feet away from the afterburners of F/A–18E Super Hornet fighter jets makes you realize there’s fewer places closer to the action than the Lincoln’s flight deck.

Some where in the back of my mind in all of this, I really thought that this war rhetoric was a bluff, a show of force, that would show Saddam Hussein that we were serious. I also didn’t think he would bring it to this.

I finished my work in the states the third day of the campaign, and headed back to Frankfurt, Germany, my home base. On the road, I diligently called my supervisors and tried to convince my commander at AFN to let me, a civilian, head “downrange” to join the action in progress.

It wasn’t easy getting confirmation from the Coalition Press Information Center that they could help us once we got to Kuwait, and, as always, information and assistance, especially in the middle of a war, isn’t very forthcoming. My commander also didn’t want us bogged down in red tape, since we weren’t embedded when the war started. He also didn’t want us embedded, something I think I’m going to thank him for since the coverage of embedded journalists tends to have too narrow a focus. We’re hoping for free access to the battlefield.

We also had to get ready. That included several hours of training on MOPP gear. That’s the protective suit worn when there is the threat of a chemical weapon attack, a very real and sobering reality about our destination. It joins the flack jacket, kevlar helmet, and just about a hundred pounds of protective equipment I’ve packed in my rucksack.

There was also the mandatory equipment and technology preparations, which is where my colleague, Army Sergeant Joe Thompson comes in handy. A computer guru and excellent military journalist, Joe is the reason for any success we’ll have on this mission. He’s been able to rig a laptop computer to our satellite videophone, allowing us to access the internet and transmit photos and video from any location, even the remoteness of the Southern Iraqi desert. He also carries a weapon, something I hope we won’t have to rely on. I joke with him about his abilities, calling him “The Joe” – a one-man military reporting machine. Every reporter should be issued one.

After a week of touch and go, some days thinking it wouldn’t happen and other days being jolted by false hope for departure, we finally got our marching orders.

Head to Kuwait, hook up with units deployed from Europe, and report via videophone on whatever access we get. And get as far forward as we can.

It’s good to work for the Army in instances like this, which is another reason I like working at the American Forces Network. Since we’re well known to the troops as a source of information and entertainment, and a valuable public affairs and command information tool for military commanders, we almost always get the access we’re looking for, and don’t have to worry about public affairs officers looking over our shoulder. They trust us. We’re not looking for the scoops and the exclusive stories. Our mission is one more closely related to the work of Ernie Pyle in World War II – telling the soldiers story.

We’re heading for war, me and “The Joe.” We could be there two weeks, or we could be there a couple of months. I suppose our stay in the region largely depends on the will of Saddam Hussein, and the resolve of the U.S. Armed Forces.

Either way, it’ll be a hell of a story.

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