War-games from the inside-out: Army journalists go behind the scenes in multinational training operations
Story by: Sgt. Michael Giles
Posted: June 22, 2016
HOHENFELS, Germany (June 22, 2016) -- We stood together, eight Army journalists in a dimly lit multimedia center. Here, the Joint Multinational Readiness Center’s operational environment team plans intricate training scenarios for massive multinational training exercises. The walls had posters and security notices, but no windows, like a vaulted basement. We were in Bavaria, near the German village of Hohenfels, but separated from the German public by two security checkpoints, a locked external gate and front door, and the reinforced door that prevented any trace of daylight from sneaking into this room.
The operational environment team is the beast of the JMRC, and we were in its belly, learning the role that we would play in the incredibly complex narrative ahead. “You’re getting a look at some things you would have never seen as a public affairs person working in this exercise,” says Doug Boyd, one of the minds behind this scenario.
We are a team of journalists with the Texas Army National Guard’s 100th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, and the adventure we’re about to undertake will involve soldiers from the U.S. and all across Europe. This is Exercise Swift Response 2016.
WE CAME TO ACCOMPLISH TWO MISSIONS
We came here to contribute our skills to two distinct missions: one in the real world as Soldiers, and one in the scenario as fictional characters. Our real-world mission reflected what we normally do as public affairs soldiers in uniform: we told the stories of military service members through our news-writing, photography and videos. We accomplished this mission by capturing photos and footage as more than one thousand paratroopers from seven countries floated to the ground before our very eyes. We gave leaders a voice as they described the training, and gathered stories about female perspectives on the operation, medics in the field, Special Forces operators and multinational collaboration. Many members of my team, including print photographer Sgt. Praxedis Pineda and videographer Sgt. Marline Duncan, agree this exercise gave us opportunities to perform our craft at a higher level. “I created some of my best work during this exercise because it exposed me to types of military roles and situations that I’ve never seen before,” Duncan said.
Our scenario-based mission was to help JMRC teach training units how to interact with the press. To this end, we put on civilian clothes and civilian attitudes and entered the scenario as civilian journalists on the battlefield.
“During these exercises, Army journalists simulate the immediate and nuanced effects of media on the modern battlefield,” said 1st Lt. Zach West, officer in charge of our detachment. “The most realistic and valuable role-playing force-on-force exercises attempt to replicate this aspect of contemporary warfare as closely as possible.”
Capt. Christopher B. Bradley, the JMRC public affairs officer, explained that the presence of civilian journalists makes the training more complex for the trainees. “The purpose of the Army journalists replicating civilians on the battlefield is to prepare the rotational training units for the media complexity of the modern battlefield, and to provide feedback to commanders, staffs and Soldiers about the effectiveness of their media engagement operations,” Bradley said.
We played our roles realistically and did our best to add complexity—a major theme of Swift Response—to the training environment. We cajoled our way into occupied towns. We promised easy interviews and then asked tough questions. We refused to go away, even when it led to us being physically—sometimes fiercely—handled by security forces. And we kept asking tough questions.
This was why the Army wanted us in the scenario: This multinational group of soldiers could learn a great deal by having reporters with agendas in their environment, and we witnessed their education progress.
Toward the start of the exercise, I interviewed a British leader in scenario who was evacuating civilians from a town. I asked the leader if he had a message for the civilians who were counting on his support. He said he didn’t. “I’m here to do my job, and I’ll do my very best at my job,” he said, declining to offer anything resembling what a civilian would want to hear from a military force that was supposed to be there to help. Toward the end of the exercise, however, we saw the British and French leaders begin to proactively reach out to us so we could help spread their message.
“With you being part of the scenario, it definitely helped them start understanding that they needed to allow more messaging to go out,” said Sgt. Andrew Reddy, a public affairs specialist with the British Army’s 16 Air Assault Brigade.
Despite the scenario's focus on training the rotational units--not us--we learned a great deal about our own craft from our in-scenario experience. We learned to generate products faster. We learned new tricks. And we gained perspective on the influence that media can have in war.
WE PRACTICED GETTING NEWS OUT FAST
Our in-scenario work was published within the fictitious training world and not in the real world, so we could comfortably make mistakes that we would forever regret if we made them in real world stories. This allowed us to experiment and develop our ability to produce stories quickly.
Speed is important for a journalist, especially a reserve-component journalist who works only one weekend a month, said 100th MPAD print journalist Sgt. Adrian Shelton. “It’s important for M-Day Soldiers before the end of their drill, and it’s really important to report on the news while it is still news,” Shelton said.
Sgt. Jacob Sawyer, the JMRC broadcast noncommissioned officer in charge who works with Bradley to facilitate reserve component PAO activities, says that developing speed is a key focus of in-scenario training. “The thing with roleplaying civilian media on the battlefield is that we want you to try to do it as fast as possible,” Sawyer said. “The civilian media gets the news out that day, that hour.”
Sgt. Duncan, who also participated in Exercise Saber Junction here in 2014, explained that both exercises have made her a more efficient journalist. “I came here with a goal of being a better videographer with faster turnaround time, and that mission is complete,” Duncan said. “I spent more time in the planning phase so that way I could be better prepared when I went out to the field. I spend a lot less time capturing out in the field, and it allows me to come back and have a faster post-production time.”
WE LEARNED HOW NEWS-REPORTING AFFECTS WAR
Here’s the scenario: An imaginary nation called Atropia is experiencing internal conflict. United States and NATO forces arrive in Atropia to stabilize the government, while a bordering nation named Ariana lends support to Atropian rebels. Soldiers with JMRC’s 1st Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment play Arianan Special Forces who attempt to help rebels overthrow the Atropian government. Soldiers with NATO forces play themselves as they hone their abilities to intervene and support nations that find themselves in such a situation. Multinational actors play civilians on the battlefield, and reserve component journalists play civilian journalists on both sides of the conflict.
As we played the game, we learned how our reporting can influence the social and political challenges that the military faces. We discovered how we fit into the overall scheme: Military leaders give orders, soldiers execute, the media reports, and public opinion changes.
“As we operate in these roles and watch the exercise unfold, we learn crucial lessons about the complex ways that media on all sides of a conflict fundamentally affect the environment and even the outcome,” Lt. West said.
We took pictures, wrote stories and made news videos that represented various perspectives within the conflict. The civilian and military training participants were able to access these stories and incorporate responses into their role-playing.
“Every single one of these towns has civilians that are in play,” Sawyer explained. “They have access to the internet that has your stories on it. All the stories you do as media impact the rotations because the commanders of these units have to worry about how they're being perceived on the battlefield.”
Our role-playing affected how we regard our profession in the real world. “The opposing point of view is something that people rarely think about,” said MPAD broadcaster Sgt. Mark Decker. “As journalists, we have to try to understand both sides of a story so we can project an unbiased view of what the situation is.”
“I was allowed to witness how the different military work together to get a mission done,” Duncan said. “My role as a civilian journalist helps me understand that the media has a big influence on what people think on different issues in the world.”
Duncan also appreciated how interacting with the international participants enhanced her ability to connect with the people she interviews. “It’s easy to establish rapport with my fellow U.S. Soldiers, but now that we’re here in a foreign country, what do I need to do to gain their trust?” she said. "To get the story out of them, you have to gain their trust. You have to drink the coffee with them. You have to connect with them before you go in to get the quote. That was my biggest take away. I found myself engaging into their thinking.”
WE CHALLENGED SENIOR MILITARY LEADERS (RESPECTFULLY)
We huddled beneath fluorescent lighting inside our temporary office, surrounded by topographical maps, multinational flags and black-and-white posters of soldiers in action in the JMRC training areas. I heard the word "volunteer" and my arm went up. Then, I realized that Capt. Bradley was asking for a team to interview JMRC's new command sergeant major, and I'd just volunteered myself and MPAD broadcaster Spc. Zachary Polka for the job.
As a Texas National Guard journalist, I had only interviewed senior leaders within the familiar confines of our smaller community at Camp Mabry. Now my teammate and I had to represent that community to the highest-ranking senior enlisted service member at JMRC. We rehearsed our questions, got coached by our team’s leaders, interviewed the command sergeant major, and received additional pointers from Capt. Bradley afterwards.
Two weeks later, in another dimly lit room, we prepared to interview the commander and deputy commander of the British and French Airborne Combined Joint Expeditionary Force (ACJEF). This time, we were in a town built for the training scenario. We were filming inside; even though the light would have been much better outside, it wasn’t safe. Just minutes earlier, a series of explosions had French soldiers jumping on top of us to shield us from any danger. So the interview would happen inside.
Even though we were journalists friendly to the ACJEF, the scenario's operational team gave us some challenging questions to ask these seasoned military leaders. As we directed a French two-star general and a British colonel where to sit, the situation reminded me of my concern while interviewing the command sergeant major: We had to remain humble, deferring to their respective positions, while also giving them a training opportunity via some tough questions. Miles away from my own chain of command, in a notional environment, I had the opportunity to practice interviewing key leaders in a difficult situation. Thanks to this adventure, if ever I face such a situation in real life, I will--at least to a small degree--be prepared.
My colleague Sgt. Decker agrees. “I wish I had this training prior to deploying to Afghanistan with a public affairs mission,” he said. “I believe I would have been better equipped to handle key leader engagements before being sent off to interview someone who required an interpreter in order to complete a story.”
WE BECAME A STRONGER TEAM
MPAD members agree that the training functions as a giant team-building exercise where people develop in their ability to trust and collaborate with each other as they succeed together. “This type of training provides an invaluable boost to unit morale and cohesion because it imbues our Soldiers with a level of confidence and subject-matter expertise that typical exercises can't really achieve,” said Lt. West.
Duncan described the team-building as a gradual process that results from working and eating together for twenty-one days straight. “Day in and day out I am working with the same people, and trust gets stronger,” she said. “At first there is a hesitation among the group, but I start to notice that people let their guard down to work together and to have a successful mission.”
Spc. Polka, the newest member of the MPAD, said that this training event painted a picture of the unit’s camaraderie that he would not have seen from just one weekend at drill each month.
“We’ve been able to hone our skills and build new and possibly lasting workable relationships side by side, hand in metaphorical hand,” Polka said. “It was a blast working with our partners, one print and one video, to accomplish our overall mission.”
As Exercise Swift Response 2016 winds down and multinational participants say goodbye to new friends, the MPAD races to finish products. Today, final products are turned in. Tomorrow, we clean the vehicles that we have driven around in the mud for three weeks; then we enjoy a single day of sightseeing before we go home to our spouses, children and full-time civilian jobs. We also return to our drills with our unit, where we don’t photograph thousands of parachutes or interview leaders of occupation forces, but tell the Army’s story just the same. Now we’ll be telling the story with new insights and strengths that we gained in our adventure together: faster, more confident, and more in touch with what it’s all about.