Saturday, September 27, 2008

Blogging amongst the Strykers

--By LTC Rob Cain, ABCA blogger

LTC Eric Bloom, the director of the Coalition Press Information Center (CPIC), told me that I had to put my uniform away for a few hours. I was to play a role. No longer was I his deputy, but a blogger for the Chicago Tribune sent to cover a press conference held by the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team. The CPIC provided the reporters: the director, the deputy, the coalition officers, and additional soldiers from Holenfels gathered in civilian dress to wait for the brigade to send a vehicle to take us to the press conference. For realism we were badged – like real media – and we had the additional equipment that the media always brings with: cameras, tripods, notebooks, and even my laptop. We even wore MILES gear. The media can get shot like everyone else. For the next few hours I was to blog on site in – Nuristan (not really, for it was all playacting).

Someone (probably a very wise PAO) once said: “Herding the media, is like herding cats.” So we tended to stray – which is why media escorts make sure that we kept in a group. It was all playacting, so it was a chance to give the Soldiers a taste of what it is really like. I tried to wander away.

“Excuse me, sir? Could you rejoin the group?”

We are transformed from a very reasonable group of professional Soldiers and DA civilians to a group of tired and grumpy news people. Our media escorts came in the door to bring us to the Media Operations Center (MOC). “Bout time!” the reporter from the BBC grumbles. Which is another way of saying : Our time is precious. We’re on TV, you know.

The soldiers assigned to guide us do not react. They stay cool and professional. In public affairs “Never, ever…lose your cool in front of the media.” This is general good advice because you could wind up on the evening news. Headline: Army Public Affairs person acts like jerk.

The vehicles are loaded up. I introduced myself to the reporter sitting next to me. “Hi, my name is Rob Cain. I am a blogger for the Chicago Tribune.”

Captain Marie-Noelle Blanchet, Canadian Forces, playing Sara Simon from AFP, normally a very friendly person, is playing her part to the hilt: “I don’t talk to bloggers.” After all, she is Sara Simon from AFP, I am just… a blogger.


Got it.

However, blogging is one of the fastest growing phenomena’s of the information age, and it is not uncommon for the military to invite bloggers to news conferences as easily as inviting a representative of NBC. The world is changing. Next time you hold a press conference, if a blogger calls for a seat…think about it first before you say “no.”

The press conference is in the open air with the coalition flags set up as a back drop. There is a table and chairs for the briefers and the media. The PAO hands out a press briefing packet that includes biographies of those that are available for questions, an information paper on the Stryker vehicle, and three press releases:

  • Nuristan Police fend off AAF attack
  • Patrol under attack while defending Asadabad
  • Insurgents hit and run Coalition Forces near Jalabad

Now let’s make something clear…the 3rd Stryker Brigade is NOT in Afghanistan, nor are they here at the JMTC to prepare for Afghanistan for some future deployment. The Stryker Brigade is here to support and learn about interoperability with our coalition partners, but like any training atmosphere there are certain tasks that commands are required to perform: carry out orders, maintenance on their vehicles and weapons, AND talk to the media.

Dealing with the media is a commander’s responsibility and the scenario of what is going on ‘in the box’ has an Afghanistan scenario. So in this world of instant communication, knowing how to conduct a press conference is a skill that must be practiced. If you ever seen a press conference, it is an intricate ‘dance’ between reporters in the audience and the person being interviewed. A dance has rules (where you put your feet and hands – all depending if you’re doing a tango or a samba). A press conference has rules as well, called ground rules (the term meaning what the reporter can or do on the ground). These are made very clear by the public affairs officer. This part was played by Sergeant first Class Matthew Davio who gave us the length of time of the conference, and the number of questions each reporter was allowed to ask when they were called upon. Does that mean we would always follow the ground rules? No. We want the dance to be a samba. Like a samba we want the dance to go in the direction where the mood takes us. The command wants the news conference to be a tango where the steps are agreed upon. The command wants to answer our questions with a peppering of their command messages and for us to -- go away. A press conference is a tug of war between these two types of dance.

By the way a command message can be the following:

  • We are superbly trained…
  • We are well led…
  • We are prepared to accomplish the mission
  • And we will focus on taking care of our families left behind.

The press conference started when Col David Funk, commander of the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team appeared. He walked out comfortably, and shook the hand of each and every reporter and looked them in the eye and introduced himself. It was not the most often done tactic, but it did put the conference on the following terms: I am in charge.

And he is, for he has the information, and he has the answers. We need him as much as he needs us to get the word out about his command.

What’s more he is prepared. He has an interpreter, subject matter experts, and his counterpart in the military from the Afghan Army who is really a Captain with the OPFOR. He introduces everyone, and gives a brief statement on why and the reason his command is in Afghanistan. When the preliminaries are concluded the questions begin.

The important thing to remember if you bring people out to stand up on the stage with the commander, they must be prepared to answer questions. This means the staff has to be prepared as well. A press conference is not just a commander’s show; it is an event that heavily involves the commander’s staff. The staff must be able to feed information to the commander on issues within their sections, help him formulate answers that might be asked. This means developing lists of possible Qs & As, and participating what sounds in an ominous sounding name called: a murder board. This is a situation where the commander, his PAO, and the staff sit in a room and try to prepare the commander with questions the media MIGHT ask.

Can it be a grueling experience? Yes.

Is it worthwhile? Yes.

This is the time where the commander can say: “Before I go out on in front of those guys G2 get me more info on that.”

A commander has a couple of choices when it comes to a press conference: have a public affairs officer handle the media while he or she is thinking of how to answer the question, or handle the mechanics of the press conference you. It is advisable to let the public affairs officer to do it for you. The most important thing is your answers to the questions, NOT who is being called upon, or how much time is left until the conference is over. You want time to mull over what is being asked.

Col Funk is bombarded with questions like the following:

There are rumors that American forces crossed the border into Pakistan. Is it true?

Did you find bomb making material in a recent raid?

Some say the villagers were disappointed with the previous commands handling of things in this area? What do you have to say about that?

He answers each question calmly and to the point. Knowing who is coming to your press conference is a big help. This is another element of proper staffing. Sometimes, knowing who is coming can directly relate on what questions may be asked. The PAO should be able to tell you something about WHO is attending.

Most everyone in the CPIC is playing a reporter today. Troy Darr and Christina Wilson from the United States Holenfel Garrison Public Affairs Office joined us as international media. Ms. Nicole Munro-Johnson of the New Zealand Defense Force has transformed herself into Genevieve Westcott, from Campbell Live. Captain Dan O’Mara from the Australian Defense Force has decided to be Alastair Leithead from the BBC, LTC Eric Bloom is from NBC and questions come from Maj Juanita Chang who has transformed herself into a reporter named Molly Maquire from the Associated Press. I feel honored to be amongst such notable company -- including Captain Blanchet (i.e. Sara Simon from AFP) -- who doesn’t talk to bloggers, but managed to engage me in small talk anyway during the course of the press conference.

She was only kidding.

That is all the questions we have time for. Thank you for coming. SFC Davio will show you out.

Ending a press conference is an art. If it is abrupt, reporters tend to jump up and pound the commander with questions as he tries to make it out of the room. But if time is running out. The PAO can say: “We have time for three more questions.” This puts a time frame on how long the command is going to keep the floor open. The commander in addition can give a closing statement. It doesn’t mean the media won’t still try to pepper the commander with questions afterwards, but a closing statement gives the commander the opportunity to use his command messages.

The press conference is over. The PAO shows us to our vehicle. If we were REAL media, don’t you want to know what we have written about your command? Have someone do a quick media analysis and look at the result. Also, get your staff to take notes. You may find yourself in a position where you disagree with what is written.

"Did I really say that?"

"Yes, did."

In the meantime, want to do better at press conferences?

Talk to a Public Affairs Officer. Even if he is blogging at the time.

‘Eyes in the sky’ watch Soldiers

Spc. Matthew A. Thompson

HOHENFELS, Germany -- The black top of the runway stretches out for a few hundred yards as a Soldier pushes an unmanned aerial vehicle toward the launcher designed to sling it into the air.

UAVs have been used since World War I. Their purpose on the battlefield evolved from weapons that destroy enemy targets during World War I to the Army’s modern mission of surveillance and reconnaissance without the loss of human life.

The Army uses a much more sophisticated system to observe enemy troop movements and warn Soldiers and allies of dangers that may be faced along the way. UAVs are known by the Soldiers who use them as the eyes in the sky.

“We can use a UAV to do route reconnaissance and spot differences in the pavement from an area we observed previously,” said Sgt. Anthony Perdue, a UAS flight line noncommissioned officer in charge with 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division. “We can catch the threat beforehand.”

The UAS squad here is a six member crew that includes their maintenance crew, operators and squad leader. Most of these personnel work out on the flight line while their squad leader works in the joint operations center.

The squad provides support to the coalition forces here which includes battalions from the British, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand Armies. Sgt. Edward Powell, squad leader and fore-sight noncommissioned officer in charge with 3-2 SBCT said, “We get an opportunity to show how great an asset UASs are here.”

Each nation has a remote video terminal so they can see what the UAS squad sees. Perdue said, “We offer them the same overhead protection and warning during the training here.”
Flying the UAV remotely, Spc. Joshua Thacker, a UAV operator for the brigade, operates the electronic camera and infrared camera attached to observe troop movements and possible enemy forces so that the Soldiers on the ground can avoid ambushes and other obstacles, such as improvised explosive devices, downed bridges or overpasses.

The brigade’s UAS squad gains valuable training while supporting other countries.

“The training is a great opportunity to learn more about interacting with other countries and incorporating what we learn (from the other nations) into our training,” Thacker said. “It’s also a good opportunity to create good will and connect with some countries on a personal level.”

The UAS squad with 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division is supporting the efforts at Cooperative Spirit 2008 at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center (JMRC) near Hohenfels, Germany in support of the American, British, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand Armies Program interoperability test. As the skies clear the following day, Soldiers wearing the flags of the five nations joined together in a common purpose can look up knowing the “eyes in the sky” are looking over them.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

British Soldiers conduct deliberate attack

One determined Kiwi

A New Zealand Soldier kneels in a safe position during improvised explosive device awareness training Sept. 11 at Hohenfels, Germany.
-- Photo by Spc. Matthew Thompson

Taking Aim

An Australian soldier assumes a solid fighting position behind rocks and tree roots during a training exercise Sept. 11 at Hohenfels, Germany.

--Photo by Spc. Matthew Thompson

A 5-20 preps equipment with MILES

Pfc. Joshua Sizemore

HOHENFELS, Germany – U.S. Soldiers from Company A, 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment geared up with Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement Systems at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center MILES Distribution facility as part of Cooperative Spirit 2008 Friday.

The training event is part of the American, British, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand Armies Program’s ongoing mission to close interoperability gaps between the nations. One example of ABCA’s compatibility is that each of the five nations is using MILES during Cooperative Spirit 2008.

MILES technology is a collection of electronic receivers spread out over the body of a person or vehicle that alerts the user once contact has been made with a laser signal from the other part of MILES, a transmitter attached to a weapon. This minimizes the risk of injury associated with conventional means of battlefield simulation.

“I’ve heard some pretty good things about it,” said Pfc. Skyler Eden, a 19-year old infantryman from Sierra Vista, Ariz. “It’s basically a vest that goes around (your body and) your helmet. The head piece is kind of heavy, but we carry heavy stuff anyway.”

Twenty-two-year old Spc. Ralph Willsey has worn MILES during other training, but he has yet to use it attached to a Stryker vehicle.

The Syracuse, N.Y., native said, “(We) simulate combat conditions … without using actual bullets.”

The superiority of an armored personnel carrier belted with modern MILES is that it cannot be triggered by MILES mimicking rounds from an M-16 rifle. APCs are usually equipped with a belt consisting of modular sensors, which set off an amber light and siren when successfully targeted by the opposing team. A Soldier’s helmet and harness detect hits similarly.

“I’m a small and an easy buddy carry, so I die all the time,” Willsey joked, “(We) go out in the woods, run around and shoot each other.”

MILES irons out unit jitters, making for a well-rehearsed fighting force, he added.
“It increases unit cohesion – within your squad, your platoon – so you know how everybody works. That way, when you get on the ground, you can work together,” Willsey said.

MILES equipment can be used in any climate condition, however, inclement weather can interfere with its lasers. Willsey observed that sensors are less effective when a target is hiding behind wet foliage.

The onset of MILES gear throughout the 1980s failed to identify who shot whom during battle enactments. Mock fatalities could cheat by rebooting their device. Perhaps because of this, some Soldiers find MILES’ capabilities rather limiting, preferring blank adaptors that fire an encrypted signal in the path of an emitter’s bearing.

Simulated Area Weapons Effects in conjunction with radio frequency communication and a Global Positioning Satellite were put into practice at Hohenfels during the early 1990s, marking an evolution in MILES technology. This enabled dismounted soldiers and their APCs to be hit during replicated explosions. These hi-tech modifications now facilitate observers with a definitive view of tactical developments.

“I prefer working without it,” Willsey said. “I like to use sim-rounds whenever possible, but they’re expensive and you have to use special adapters for weapons to use them.”

Paintball-style rounds to replicate combat zone scenarios are also favored by many troops.

“They have paint rounds that can actually tell where you got hit,” Willsey said. “It works with an M-4 or .50 cal. If you get hit in a sensitive area, you don’t get hurt that much, but you know that you’re hit, and why you got hit.”

Where sim-rounds are expensive and paint ball is dangerous, MILES has continued to offer safe combat simulations and even received several upgrades.