Saturday, November 15, 2008

Embedded at West Point

Although I chose to attend NYU in part because of the opportunities New York would offer me, never did I imagine that through NYU I would spend a day at West Point. But That’s exactly where I was this past week.

As I’ve said in prior posts, my Reporting I professor believes in learning by doing (which is a nice way of saying, "learning by messing up"). She’s sent us out on assignments that most professors wouldn’t dream of assigning first semester students. Just the other day I overheard two professors marveling at the work our class did on election night; we were really thrown into the deep end and told, “swim.”

So when the professor was contacted by a major at West Point, located in upstate New York, interested in having journalism students spend the day embedded with cadets at the military school, she couldn’t possibly say no.

When she announced in class we were to be embedded I had visions of getting dirty in the trenches, jumping over barbed wire, and riding around in humvees a la Generation Kill. That wasn’t the case.

We were there to sit in on a simulated Baghdad mission. The aim was for the cadets to experience a simulation of working Baghdad checkpoints. We left at 10:30AM and didn't get back until after 8PM. I was surprised by how beautiful the West Point campus was.

During the simulated mission the cadets sat in front of computer screens showing images of where they were: various checkpoints in the fictitious Al Mansor neighborhood of Baghdad a la Grand Theft Auto. The cadets would have to make real time decisions about how to handle various situations, and man the radio reporting back to Headquarters.

Why did they want us there? In Iraq it’s not uncommon to have a journalist embedded within a platoon or company. So the West Point major wanted his cadets to gain experience interacting with journalists.

The simulation was bloody. Two insurgent car bomb attacks (VBIED’s in military parlance- Vehicle Borne Explosive Device) rocked the neighborhood, 25 Iraqi civilians, one US soldier, and five insurgents died. I was embedded with the radio operator at the platoon’s command post, we had a map but no computer, so I didn’t see anything.

For all the simulation’s benefits, it lacked the urgency and emotion of what I would imagine of a real Baghdad checkpoint. When the American soldier was killed, his partner radio back to the command post a flat toned, “Jim’s dead, over.”

After about 20 minutes the simulation was over. We journalists had to get that day’s Baghdad story: the two bombings and resulting deaths.

The most interesting part of the day was when we met with Lieutenant Colonel Hilferty, an army press officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some would call the talk he gave us candid; others would call it unprofessional. Here are some gems:
  • “I don’t feel bad about Pat Tillman dying, I feel bad about the way we handled his death.” – I knew what he was trying to say, but damn.
  • “On a personal level, I cannot stand Dexter Filkins.” – He said this to Ali, a guy who’s worked extensively with Filkins in Baghdad
  • “The English press officers are incompetent.”
Anyway, all in all it was a pretty good week. Here are some more pictures I took:

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