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Booger Three: The true story

By PAMELA HESS, UPI Pentagon Correspondent

WASHINGTON, Nov. 22 (UPI) -- Wednesday, Nov. 20: In which our heroine hits the deck, loses her helmet, and sprains her ankle, but scores some serious Motrin.

7 a.m.: It is Day Three of a new training course designed by the military to help reporters prepare to embed with combat units in the event of a war with Iraq.

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For reasons unclear, we were woken not by screaming sergeants but by gentle knocks on the door -- small consolation at 5 a.m.

It is a big day, as we will be camping overnight in a wet field and eating only MREs until Thursday night. We scramble to pack everything we need and struggle on our rucksacks -- awkward, heavy backpacks with more straps than anyone needs.

I flip it on from an upside-down position (more complicated than it sounds) and stagger under the weight, careening into the bunk bed. With the helmet, flak jacket and FLIC (an acronym that almost surely stands for something but mostly equals heavy, as it is a Bat-belt like vest thing that ports all the incidentals of warfare: canteen, MREs, first aid kit). I am easily carrying an extra 30 pounds, maybe more. I am already tired before I hit the door.

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A hung-over bunkmate (whose identity I will not disclose for reasons of operational security) struggles vainly to assemble her pack.

We are not Marines, but for the week we are learning what it is they do and how they do it. If we get assigned to cover them in combat, we will have to carry the same weight, eat the same food and wear similar protective equipment in order to be safe on the battlefield.

7:30 a.m.: My "platoon," the Third, musters outside the dormitory. As usual, two of our number are missing. It is never the same two people although it is frequently a certain Network News Star. This fact -- along with our inability to line up, walk straight, or follow even the most basic directions -- has earned us a nickname among the Marine trainers that will stick through the rest of the week: Booger Platoon.

It is strangely fitting. We are so bad we don't even know we're bad and we are blithely unconcerned when we find out. We wander around like demented kittens, defenseless and uncontrollable. We wear our Boogerness as a badge of honor. We are most definitely not Marines.

This baffles Sergeant Zwart, the multiply muscled baby-faced NCO assigned to keep us in line. It amuses Sergeant Allison, a tall, willowy brunette military policeman shipped in from the Army to make this a joint military experience.

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And our platoon commander Captain Ski -- I am not at all sure what he makes of us. He has a habit of disappearing for long periods, I think to sneak home to see his young wife, who will soon bear him a son.

Sergeants from other platoons come to marvel at our lack of discipline and shake their heads disapprovingly. We beam with rebellious pride.

Platoon Six, whose sergeant makes them meet 15 minutes before every training session to march together, stares in fascination at us from their rigid ranks as they go to our destination: Landing Zone 7. Marines call it an LZ. Booger Third is last to arrive, as usual.

At the LZ, which is in truth an empty sodden field covered in frost and where we will stand for about two hours, we get a lesson in camouflage. A Marine appears from the brush looking like the lovechild of Cousin It and the Cowardly Lion.

Apparently you can make a suit out of frayed rope that will hide you from even the sharpest-eyed enemy. If you don't have frayed rope, just shove some sticks in your hat. It really works if you stand still. But if you move, you're meat.

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8:30 a.m.: We are meat.

Two helicopters, a monstrous CH-53 and a smaller Vietnam era CH-46 swoop down in the field to collect us. Our platoon is in the first stick. We will be landing in a "hot" LZ; Marines posing as the enemy are waiting for us about 10 miles away on the vast Quantico reservation.

Zwart gives us instructions and a mission rehearsal. We will run off the helicopter, packs slung over one shoulder, and immediately dive on the ground to avoid the bullets and concussion grenades. We are assured they are only blanks. On his mark, we'll get up, run another 10 feet and hit the deck again, repeating until we reach the safety of the tree line.

We practice. Zwart calls out, we throw ourselves down on the ground. So far so good. He gets up, we follow and once again we are on the ground (sodden, frosty). The lights go out: my helmet and skull cap have slipped completely over my eyes. I flail like a bug. Finally I am rescued by Allison, who pulls me up by my pack. Zwart says I am pretty much dead.

Chastened, I join my team on the CH-46, pleased not to be on the larger CH-53 because I know a little too much about its swashplate duplex bearing history (not a pretty one) and also because it's a far more acrobatic helicopter, and the pilots look like they are up for some fun.

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The ride across Quantico is glorious, a highlight for everyone. We fly what seems to be just inches over the tree tops. But as soon as we are down the ramp we are facedown on the ground, trying to keep up with the nimble Zwart.

The LZ is filled with white smoke, machine gun fire and grenades. Sarge beckons us forward and down again. By the third run the pack just topples me over sideways in the tall grass. Somewhere along the line, I lose my sleeping pad.

We wait in the treeline for the other platoons to arrive and we plot their progress across the LZ. They are pretty much meat, too. It's a wonder anyone gets out of a helicopter alive.

Indeed, the largest casualty count of the war in Afghanistan came during Operation Anaconda in March, when a helicopter was hit as it tried to land with troops and its hydraulic system wiped out. A Navy SEAL accidentally slipped out of the helicopter when it came under fire; another helicopter full of Rangers went back to retrieve him. At least the first four men out of the rescue helicopter were shot by waiting al Qaida fighters.

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The battle would rage for 18 hours and would claim seven Americans.

The lessons from that battle are still being collected, Zwart and others told us, but all agreed the few seconds on the ramp are the most vulnerable and frightening. They practice this maneuver over and over; within 10 seconds a platoon of Marines can jump off a helicopter and take up defensive positions in a circle around it. Reporters are a lot slower.

Lunch will find us at a far more disturbing exercise: following a platoon of new lieutenants through their first live-fire exercise. They will move down a hill, through an exposed valley and fight their way up to an enemy position, all while machine gun fire whizzes overhead, hopefully clearing the tallest lieutenant by eight feet. They are using real bullets.

We tighten our flak jackets and begin a now familiar activity: pretending we are in a cheesy military movie and choosing which of us would live or die based on our personalities. I always get to live because it is my game.

I run through possible lines with another network correspondent: "If anything happens to me, I want you to promise to find my mother and tell her I love her," and "Leave me here, go on without me," uttered only when a character is mortally wounded. This is an endlessly amusing past time for me.

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The lieutenants move out. So do we, at a respectful distance, what with all the bullets flying. Word gets passed down the line: "hole!" Everyone but me sidesteps it. I go down, clutching my ankle and writhing in pain.

To my everlasting delight, I am told by my platoon-mates that when they stopped to help me I did in fact utter the words, "Go on without me!"

They did. I hobbled up the hill, flanked by a news producer from a national network who was somewhat concerned about me but I think more concerned about the live ammunition.

A few hours, three X-rays and 800 milligrams of Motrin later, I am back with my platoon. In my absence they have followed another group of Marines through a grueling urban warfare and counter-sniper course, wherein a good third of the professional soldiers were "killed" by enemy fighters hiding behind walls and in doorways. It underscored one of the big concerns of a possible war with Iraq: the potential for house-to-house fighting in Baghdad.

It is a dangerous business and casualties on all sides, including civilians and certainly press, would be high.

The day's instruction ends with field medicine, wherein my platoon learned -- too late to be of any service to me -- how to set a broken limb with sticks.

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All fixed up with a tricky ankle brace, I rejoined the crew in the field under a full moon to watch a night time live-fire maneuver in the same field that tripped me up the first time. It is very dark and very loud.

Today we have learned one important thing: blanks or bullets, Marines kind of like shooting at reporters. All in the interest of training, of course.

As the temperature plummets, our attention is quickly turned to a fire the Marines have built next to the latrine. We pass the next few hours in candid conversation we these mostly young men, during which they explain what drives them to do this uncomfortable, poorly paid job.

"I friggin' love these guys," says one sergeant. "I don't care what anyone says, when we are out here we aren't fighting for our country, we are fighting for each other."

Here's what they don't friggin' like: the movie "Windtalkers," and the movie "A Few Good Men."

"They friggin' make us look like friggin' psychopaths," explains the Marine.

Let the record show these are not friggin' psychopaths. These are committed, underpaid, brave and physically fit young people who endure privation and follow any order issued to them under terrible conditions by their superiors, no matter how hare-brained, as long as it is lawful. It is not a job I would want myself, nor am I capable of it.

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But out here under a cold moon next to a warm fire being addressed as "ma'am," I can't help but be impressed with their willingness to do it.

9:30 p.m.: To bed, surrounded by a cacophony of snores. It is very cold in my tent.

Thursday, Nov. 21: In which our heroine loses confidence in her equipment.

5 a.m.: Reveille, which involves three Marines sergeants screaming "Reveille!" and threatening to kick over our tents. Someone from Booger Three beseeches back "5 more minutes, sir!" The sergeants don't think this is funny. The rest of us do.

Packing up tents and gear in the pitch darkness is not easy and it soon becomes clear my helmet is missing. A sergeant from First Platoon, that bastion of rule-following, straight-line standing ninnies, looks at me in disgusted dismay. Marines do not lose their helmets. We load up in 7-ton trucks for the long ride back.

8:30 a.m.: The better part of the day will be spent in Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Training, teaching us how to inject nerve-agent antidote and how to put on and clear our gas masks. Our general take-away: you pretty much don't want to get hit with nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.

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We look at slides of blistered skin and rotted brains and ponder our helplessness. Even the Marines around the fire last night conceded their fear of chemical and biological attack. I fall asleep on my folded protective suit.

"GASGASGAS!" A screaming Marine jolts me awake. We have 9 seconds to find and don our respirator (a gas mask with a charcoal filter good for about 30 hours of breathing goodness) and clear it with our eyes closed. If it takes 10 seconds, you're pretty much dead. I do pretty well, considering I being dead asleep.

The Pentagon is increasingly concerned that chemical and biological weapons may be used against U.S. troops in combat. If reporters are with them, they need to be able to protect themselves too.

But we need a lot more practice and a healthy dose of luck if we are going to survive something like this.

The drill is repeated a few more times throughout the morning. Soon we will go to the Confidence Chamber.

Zwart makes a last-ditch and ultimately fruitless attempt to impose some discipline on our rag-tag band. The Booger Third meanders to the gas chamber.

We get a final briefing. The drill is fairly simple. By platoon, we will enter a closed room filled with a stinging tear gas known as CS but we will be safe because we are wearing special protective suits and our masks.

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We will follow the instructor around the room for one lap and line up against the walls. We will shake our heads from side to side to show we have a good seal. Then we will take a deep breath, squinch our eyes shut and pull the mask off our face for a second. We will put it back on, clear the mask by blowing out sharply and prepare to remove the mask entirely. On his count, we pull the mask completely off, wait a second, then put it back on and clear it again.

It is no different from what we've been doing all day, except this time if we screw up we will begin to drool, mucus will flow out of our noses in viscous rivers, tears will streak our cheeks and we'll start to cough and won't stop for 10 minutes. We may or may not throw up.

The purpose of this exercise is not to punish us, they insist, but to teach us that our equipment works and that we know how to handle it. This is a confidence building exercise -- in ourselves and in our equipment.

This is also the Mother of All Strap Management Challenges. The masks have spider's web of elastic and buckles that bald Marines have no problem pulling on and off but reporters with long braids and black glasses struggle with mightily (that's me). My mask always ends up kind of sideways which is a world of hurt where chemical agents are concerned.

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I'm a little panicky on the way in so the captain and sergeant gather round to check my seal out. They give me the thumbs up, and the door opens.

The Booger Third walks in bravely and immediately scatters in 10 different directions.

"You're supposed to follow me!" yells the stunned instructor. We bump in to each other. A canister is spewing gray smoke in the middle of the room.

The Network News Star begins to cough and wheeze; his seal is bad. I feel OK. We shake our heads. No problem. We break the seal, then clear our masks. I'm golden.

Then the instructor tells us to take off our masks.

Closing my eyes tight, I pull the tab that takes it off my head. We wait for his word. It seems to take about four hours. Our skin starts to burn like a bad sunburn, especially where we have been sweating. The carbon filaments in the gas are attracted to wet spaces, hence the shut eyes.

We put the masks back on and blow out. Well, everyone does but me. My straps are all bulloxed up and I can't a good seal. Captain Ski is immediately on me, straightening everything out. The instructor moves in my line of sight.

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"Are you OK?"

Eyes tearing and throat closing, I gesture toward the door. He stops me.

"We're leaving in about 15 seconds. Hang in there."

Ski to my right and Zwart within sight, I wait. Once clear of the door, I hock up an unladylike ball of phlegm.

Ski and I walk up and down the street to tame the burning on my face, waving my arms to dissipate the gas. Sergeant Allison grabs my mask and inspects it. "The elastic is shot. Of course this didn't fit," she says.

Confidence in self: shaky under the best of circumstances. Confidence in mask: Falling fast.

Note to Rummy: Buy these Marines some new masks, would ya?

After the drill, we are assured combat Marines have new masks with excellent elastic. These are just training items and get used constantly.

Allison, who should have an action figure named after her, is considering going back in the chamber without a gas mask to clear up a chest cold. Three good snorts should do it.

Our platoon poses for a group picture -- careful to avoid wiping our noses and spreading the agent further on our faces -- and she tells me how proud she is of our group.

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"Everybody went in and everybody took off their masks," she says. It seems some members of other (non-Booger) platoons couldn't take it and ran out right away.

There is certainly something to the military tradition of shared suffering to build esprit de corps. After a night shivering in a field and being gassed by our own Marine Corps, there is a palpable difference in our platoon. We march a little more proudly back up the hill, overtaking the Fifth Platoon, whose sergeant promptly begins ridiculing us.

"Better be careful," warns Ski, proudly. "These Boogers can infiltrate your platoon in seconds."

I don't know what he meant exactly but I think it was a compliment. We're wily.

The night ends with PT -- military speak for physical training, or calisthenics in a gym. I flashed back to junior high school, where I did early anything I could to avoid physical education classes, in large part because of the public showers that the gym teacher seemed a little too enthusiastic about.

Jumping jacks, sit ups, etc. Lots of funny film of reporters gasping for breath. Marines in tight green T-shirts barked out orders, beginning each new exercise sequence with a robotic "I WILL DEMONSTRATE." We followed as best we could, but our minds were on one thing: a tall beer at the Hawk, the last

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opportunity to drink before our final test: a 5-mile field march with loaded packs and gas masks.

Rumor has it there will be a CS attack on the route, and our brethren in the media -- some of the 400 reporters who have signed up for similar courses -- will be at the finish line to record our, um, hour of triumph.

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