His Wake-Up Call: Worst Sandstorm of the Year

Mar 17, 2003  •  Post A Comment

The first night of my embed with Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, was spent sleeping on the tarmac under the wing of our delayed military transport. Just as I was getting some sleep the second night, somewhere in flight between Frankfurt, Germany, and Kuwait, a steel helmet fell on my head from an overhead compartment stuffed with flak jackets and gas masks.
Upon our arrival in Kuwait in the middle of our third night, we were unceremoniously dropped off in the empty desert where our staging base had yet to be built. We spent the night in the open, where we dropped our 100-plus-pound packs stuffed with all the personal and professional equipment we could carry. Our wake-up call was the worst sandstorm of the year, with gusts of 60 mph filling every physical and equipment orifice with sand, which is still there.
Welcome to the brave new world of military embeds and the U.S. Marines Corps on deployment to Kuwait, whose recruiting theme used to be the country hit I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. I was “embedded” with my unit at Camp Pendleton on Jan. 8 and left the United States with it Feb. 1 for a weekly series I’m reporting and producing for ABC News Nightline. I could very well be the most senior of the reporter embeds, if seniority is measured by the amount of sand and MRE’s (meals ready to eat) I’ve consumed. It’s part of the Department of Defense’s resurrection of the embed system used in World War II by Walter Cronkite and intended to replace the disastrous “pool” coverage during the Gulf War, which first brought me here to Kuwait 12 years ago to the day.
As advertised, reporters are being allowed to get closer to the troops and activities than they ever imagined. After two weeks at a stretch without a shower or hot meals and sharing a two-man tent with four men during a desert rainstorm, some reporters will find it closer than they ever wanted to get to the military. It’s been especially up close and personal with my unit of forward-deployed Marines, living in foxholes and pup tents closest to the Iraq border. (We are restricted from giving our exact positions or where we are going next.) They religiously adhere to a “guardian angel” protocol of doing everything in pairs for security reasons. That includes the unthinkable in the civilian world of toilets and the Army’s Porta-Johns in the larger bases-a luxury the Marines don’t have.
If you are willing to endure what the Marines are experiencing in the desert without complaint, you will be able to report with some authority on issues like: How long can the American forces wait before it becomes a problem for personnel and equipment? Or where is the emotional roller coaster of hurry-up-and-wait most pronounced? Forget about the world of military handlers, press conferences and photo ops telling you the who, what, when and where. You can do virtually any story you want any time you want and you can check it out with a company first sergeant, who will give you the straight scoop on everything happening within his universe and planet Earth if you press him. Out on the front lines, away from well-meaning yet interfering military public affairs officers and your own editors and publishers, you are finally free of both the Pentagon spin and your newsroom’s equally dangerous preconceptions of what the story really is. The stories are all around, and it’s like dunking for apples.
But you must be careful not to lose your objectivity when a 19-year-old lance corporal offers you his goggles and scarf when a sudden sandstorm starts giving you an unexpected facial scrub. You’ve also got to be very careful with the Marine officers and noncommissioned officers who will insist that you eat before them, along with the junior enlisted men, in case there is not enough hot food to go around, which is often the case when an errant meal truck finally makes its way out to your position.
Any self-respecting reporter with fears of a government manipulation and long-held beliefs that military people couldn’t possibly have opinions, insights and perspectives their viewers and readers could possible find more profound than their own, must be especially careful. They are about to get some sand kicked in their face.