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|| News Item: Posted 2003-03-02

Hostile Environment Training 101
The Journalist's pre-requisite training for covering today's conflicts

By Vincent Laforet, The New York Times

Photo by

Vincent Laforet is more a soldier than a journalist these days.
Perhaps my father put it best. "You're more a soldier than a journalist these days," he said as he tried on my gas mask in London. He'd come up on an overnight visit from Paris, following my one-week course in the United Kingdom, aimed at better preparing journalists who cover conflicts.

He's not that far off - journalist are now fair game - as Daniel Pearl and over a dozen others who lost their lives in covering the post-9/11-conflict in South Asia learned the hard way. The gear I will bring overseas - if I indeed go to the Middle East -no longer consists of a Lightware backpack and clothing - but now includes a large Pelican case filled with bio-chemical suits, gas masks, various antidotes, survival kits, bullet-proof vest and helmet. Ultimately I will bring less camera gear than I would bring on a national assignment - in order to make room for an endless list of survival gear.

Times have changed, as have the dangers in covering international conflicts - and so should the average journalist's preparation and training. And that's where the Centurion training comes in - they teach you how to use this new gear and what to do if it all hits the fan. I'd also suggest that given the current terrorism threats - the training will better prepare you for what I hope never happens on our own soil.

I'll start by saying that not a single journalist should even think of going out to the Middle East without at least a day's worth of training on the use of bio-chemical warfare suits. Although the risk is relatively small that anyone will be exposed to such an attack - being unprepared is simply not an option. In fact many companies are making such courses a mandatory pre-requisite.

I would also recommend taking a hostile environment course such as the one being offered by Centurion - if not only for the First Aid training. (If you go to their site, there is a free set of reports, called "Media Safety Net" that covers everything from weather reports to care for body armor - a great resource for any journalist.) I had already taken a First Aid and CPR course - but it really didn't prepare me for hostile environment injuries that I might face - such as gun shot wound, amputations, or shrapnel wounds.

Photo by
The cost can seem prohibitive to some freelancers - around $3,000 for the week (lodging, meals, and perhaps even a cheap airfare included to the UK.) The course is also offered in Virginia for those who want to stay closer to home. I should note that there were 4 freelance photographers from around Europe who took the course when I was there - most because their publications did not want to face the insurance risk of hiring them without the training.

The course takes place near the town of Hampshire - 30 minutes south of London in a Hotel owned by a Christian group. The irony is hard to miss - you have a few dozen students studying the Bible on one side of a hotel and two-dozen journalists donning chemical suits on the other. It's a bloody strange scene.

The food is what you'd expect from British food outside of London - the Brits aren't know for their cuisine - and you definitely couldn't fit a Ford Focus inside your room. I opened my closet door and found to my surprise - the bathroom.

Nonetheless I think the knowledge you will find within these walls is invaluable - both for this upcoming conflict - or any other - if not just only for your average journalist who covers spot news back at home.

The first thing I'd like to dispel is: it's no vacation. The days are long - 8:30 a.m. to 6:30p.m. from Monday through Friday. About a third of the time is spent outside the classroom on the cold and muddy grounds - if you go, bring waterproof pants and boots - you'll literally be rolling around in mud. Many of us left completely exhausted - both physically and mentally - or maybe we were frankly a bit depressed - we'd been hearing about massive blood loss, legs flying a hundred feet through the air, and nerve gas agents for close to a week.

It's not a PT class mind you - but you do get down and dirty on a few occasions. One day involves taking a 45-minute walk down a path - where you are randomly caught between crossfire and have to hit the deck and crawl to safety on your belly. You can also fall victim to a mortar attack or sniper attack complete with live, loud explosions and smoke. Trip-wires, various mines and booby-traps are indeed included. It's fun - but also very sobering when you realize that you may one day actually be faced with such a scenario.

I must admit that on a few occasions I thought about breaking into wedding photography. The worst nightmare for a wedding photographer might involve forgetting to put film in the camera. A bad day at Centurion finds you stuck in the middle of a mine-field prodding dirt with a BBQ stick (you prod the ground at less than a 30º angle one inch at a time trying to find mines buried underneath you) Another finds you surrounded by 3 injured soldiers - one unconscious, the other with his guts hanging out of his belly, and the third literally squirting fake blood in your face.

Don't be fooled - you are in no way being trained to be a medic, or even less a soldier. In many ways the course if but an overview of what you need to know and train for. The Centurion course will not only prepare you mentally but also teaches you some basic steps that could very well save a colleague's life (if not a family members' life outside of a conflict.)

More than two days are spend on First Aid - and not the stuff they teach you at the YMCA either. Ask yourself: would you know what to do right now if a colleague was shot in front of you?

You'll learn how to make a stretcher out of a pair of jackets and pants - or how to filter water with your underwear or just sand and rocks. You will be taught how to stop an arterial bleed, or "pumper" as well as something as common as shock. You will be taught how to do so in a classroom first and then be led out into the field where the ex-marines you are with, will re-enact actual gun shot scenarios, car accidents, and worse - and you will be required to perform the actual first aid in front of your classmates.

Other topics include kidnappings, weapons, artillery etc. You will learn when to hide behind walls - and what kind of walls to hide behind - they will show you how many shots it takes for an AK-47 to break through a brick wall (2-3 to make a hole the size of the brick.) You will learn about different types of mines, as well as how to survive in both cold and hot climates. Border crossings and riot situations are also covered.

What makes the Centurion training different - is both the hands-on experience as well as the level of the instructors - the majority of them are retired Marines - with 22 years of service and battlefield experience - many are Veterans of the Falklands war.

So they not only share with you the basics, but anecdotes from their actual experiences. You also have ample opportunity to share stories over drinks at the bar, which conveniently located just outside the classroom. And if you're not in the mood to drink, you'll most likely go to bed early - there's really nothing much to do at the remote hotel - it's a 5 minute taxi ride from the nearest pub/restaurant and a quarter of an hour from the closest town. I do recommend you go watch a local soccer match - the fans are awesome.

I'm not going to go much more in what you're taught - as there's really no substitute for attending the course. The course is not perfect - and most of us found it difficult to make it through the hours and hours of classroom presentations - but these guys are thorough.

I would like to make a few suggestions on what you should consider bringing if you go to the Middle East - as I know this is one of the hardest things for most people to prepare for.

So here goes a list of things I suggest you consider bringing - in three categories. The first is the minimum. The second will require you to bring a sherpa. The third category will require you to a Sherpa to carry your Sherpa…


Cameras/ Lenses: I recommend a 16~35mm, 50mm, and a 100~400mm lens - one flash and 6 batteries. Travel light with gear so you can be mobile. It's bright in the desert and you probably won't need a 70~200 2.8 until the day you really need one of course, or unless you'll be doing a lot of press conferences. I think it's a good idea to bring two camera chargers in case one falls victim to a power surge - which is all too common. Waterproof bags or some way to protect your gear from sand is essential. Don't use Dust Off - it will only push the sand in deeper - bring everything wrapped inside gallon size Ziploc bags and only take them out when you really need them.

Computer kit: Bring an external hard drive to copy your files. I would highly recommend you bring an extra power adapter for your laptop as they are the first things to break/blow and you're out of luck if that happens. There is one basic rule: have backups when you can - if something breaks out there, you're out of commission for at least a week - you probably won't find FedEx out there - and you will have to have a colleague or friend fly in with a replacement.

A second laptop isn't completely crazy - but it adds weight to your kit and take up more space. A surge protector is the best investment - as people have been known to blow their computer, battery chargers, and sat phones all at once due to a surge from a generator. Bring an extra fuse for the surge protector strip. You'll need to look into a power inverter to power your chargers and computer/Sat phone off of a vehicle battery.

First Aid kit: I recommend you have a small backpack dedicated to your First Aid Kit and bio-chem suit - one that you have with you AT ALL TIMES. It's no use to you in the hotel. In addition to the basic first aid kit I'd recommend you try to find Field Dressing gauze - it's a military version of your basic gauze - and absorbs up to a liter of blood. It's also useful for head wounds, and for providing support to bones or anything sticking out of you…

Bullet Proof Vest: Get a Level IIIA vest with plates - they now make very light plates and vests are getting more comfortable. Spend the extra dough on the plates so you'll actually wear them. I'd also recommend one with removable shoulder, neck, and groin guards.

A helmet is also a good idea - although don't be fooled - none stop bullets. Here's also a big misunderstanding - your biggest threat is not from a bullet, but from shrapnel - the biggest killer on the battlefield. Very few soldiers die from gunshot wounds - most wounds are inflicted by shrapnel - ergo the need to neck, shoulder, and groin protectors - as well as helmets.

You can start looking at if you don't know where to start for a vest. Don't be surprised if there is a 2 to 4 week waiting period given the current demand. Also I hear that vests are being confiscated at the airports in Iraq…

Photo by Vincent Laforet/The New York Times

Photo by Vincent Laforet/The New York Times

New York Times photographer James Hill and his gas mask.
Gas Mask: Get one that's intended for Bio-Chem warfare. Ideally get one that is easy to put on fast - mine has a piece of fabric connected to the rubber straps with a loop on it - so I can quickly pull if over my face. I keep the straps on the front of the mask so I can quickly put the mask on my face and the worry about getting the straps rights.

The best piece of gear you can buy for it (besides a spare gas canister) is a bag similar to the ones all the police forces have on the streets out there today - it's a bag that hooks onto your belt and ties onto your quadriceps (kind of like a gun holster) - ergo the mask is always with you. If you come under attack from a gas attack, all you most likely will need is your gas mask - YOU HAVE 9 SECONDS.

So having it at the bottom of your backpack won't do you any good. Speaking of mask - put your hand over the canister to block the airflow and make sure you have a good seal - and shave that beard off guys. The rule is more than one day's growth and you won't have a good seal.

Bio Chem suits: There are many different flavors… best thing is: try it on before you need it… Also remove it from the airtight packaging - getting that stuff off can take an eternity… One-piece suits are harder to put on for some.

There are two kinds - fabric ones with coal on the inside. The advantage is that those dissipate heat and moisture better - and you'll be able to function in them. They also absorb any liquids so that you don't transfer them as easily onto other things through contact. Plastic ones take up less space - but the heat will kill you. You won't be able to function for long in 120º weather. They're of course easier to rinse off though - but also subject to tear.

If you need to put tape on them to seal them better - remember that you may tear them when your remove the tape… so make sure it's not a false alarm. Don't forget rubber gloves, with a small cotton pair inside, as well as boots or booties. More importantly you'll want to get hold of a decontamination powder or pad to stop the liquids from corroding their way through the suits… they also make patches that you apply on your car or person that change color when they're exposed to certain agents. Remember - some are invisible and have no distinguishable scent… also; you'll need to know what kind of agent you've been exposed to, so that you can take the necessary course of action.

Sat Phone: You have a few options. At The Times we use a R-BGANs or Thrane & Thrane high-speed sat phones - which send pix back faster than on a phone line - at $7/minute. Or you can avoid carrying another suitcase with you (for Thrane & Thrane - RBGans are the size of an Ibook - but has no voice capability) and go for a handheld Thuraya.

These phones are a little bigger than cell phones - but they're incredibly mobile… the units cost 1/5th the price of the Thranes and run at under $1/minute. What you gain in the smaller size you lose in transmission speed - 9600bps - or roughly 8-10 minutes per picture. You can't use these phones in the US hemisphere either - but they work great in the Middle East - as the satellite is owned by a Saudi Arabian company. Needless to say make sure you have your computer configured to work before you leave on your trip.

Boots: Gore-Tex isn't good out there. And wearing military desert boots may not be the brightest idea either. I've opted for leather Rockports - because it is comfortable and do well in hot and cold weather - don't forget it gets VERY cold in the desert at night. In fact, some of the British Special Forces fell victim to frostbite at night when they were tracking down SCUD missiles 12 years ago. Some of my friends that our embedded with the military are recommending you go to an Army surplus and get the tan boots they sell.

Therefore bring warm weather clothes - and some cold weather clothes - see where the Sherpas come in? Stay away from bright colors or anything that will make you stand out - as well as synthetic materials - as they melt onto the body…

Bring antibiotics, and any prescription medicine you might need (enough for 3 months) and medicine for Malaria, which is prevalent in the Middle East. Note: I hear that you should stay away from Larium - as it may give you really funky dreams or worse - Malarone medication is what you need to look into or some other medicine. Cipro is not such a bad idea either. I also recommend trying to get your doctor to write you a prescription for Zythromax - a great anti-biotic for any upper-respiratory infection.

A nice hat for the sun, and sunglasses.

Don't forget to drink 5 liters of water a day - 2 liters on the field with you and siphon down the rest before and after. Coffee and Tea make you pee so they're not good for you in the desert.

You'll also need to get all of your inoculations in line… you'll need to get a butt load done (or should I say an armload) and have proof of them in a little yellow booklet they give you. Some countries require an HIV test upon entry - and may chose not to honor previous test results.

It won't hurt to be in shape either - the more overweight you are - the harder it will be for you to work in the heat. Although I hear blubber can help with shrapnel - your choice then.

II. What you should think of also bringing - the more you bring of course the less mobile you are - and the less likely you are to have it with you in time of need. (And the more noticeable you'll be at customs - not to mention to thieves.)

Parka: It's great for shelter under rain, and can be used as a tent, and even a stretcher.

A spare camera body safely packed away - perhaps with a wide-angle lens - in case your gear is "lost." Veterans tell me prime lenses are much better than zoom lenses, especially push/ pull zoom lenses that suck the thin sand in.

Sun block - and mosquito repellent - the mosquitoes give you Malaria.

Int'l power adapters/Phone converter kit.

Swiss army knife - not in your carry-on of course.

A second pair of glasses. A soldier broke mine into a dozen pieces last time I went overseas - and it's a drag to get new ones. (Having your prescription with you helps.)

Water purification pills or small water pump to filter drinking water.
Something to boil water in wouldn't be a bad idea. A small gas burner might be considered for cooking or boiling said water - although it's also effective to leave water out in the sun in a CLEAR contained all day - that is as effective as boiling it.

Ready to eat meals - such as the dry military ones you can get online or from any military surplus store.

Goggles are very important- for the desert sand.

Compass and GPS.
Never hurts to know where you are - neither takes too much space.

Money belt or some sort of way to carry you money. Never carry your money in one place - spread it out all over your body/gear and colleagues - and make sure to have access to small denominations - not just $100 bills. A dozen or so color photocopies of your passport and visa will become invaluable at times - as well as a dozen headshots for visa applications.

III. It would be nice to have, but your most likely won't have room for:

Tent and Sleeping bag.

Armored vehicle. Ha!

Tabasco sauce.

Ear plugs.

Sand is your enemy - do you best to prepare for it.

Night vision would be nice as well as some sort of way to let the US know you're a friendly… maybe an infrared beacon on your 4X4… we could all wish…

1.4X and 2X converter.

A defibrillator if you're part of a team - most countries don't equip their ambulances with them.

Two-way radios to communicate with colleagues quickly - either in a vehicle convoy or in close distances. (Cells ain't gonna work.) The small Motorolas sold a Radio Shack work great.

A second/spare bio-chem suit.

An important note about the dangers of Atropine - the antidote injection for nerve gas. If it turns out if was a false alarm and you weren't expose to nerve gas and you injected yourself with it - the stuff will most likely kill you ;) That's why it's no longer handed out to certain nations' troops.

Oh - and you'll probably need to get rid of all of your gear at the end of the conflict - the sand gets so thin it'll go through all of the small gears in your lenses and cameras… that's why it's a good idea to have a 3rd spare body.

IV. LASTLY: A Few tips for the really hard core:

One of the harsh truths is that unless you're within 30 minutes of a hospital, any first aid performed on a serious injury will most likely not save you. It's "First" aid - not life support. And it goes without saying that most of the times you're well beyond two to three hours from the nearest poorly equipped hospital. Also if you fall victim to a chemical attack - you'll probably have no way of detecting it until it's too late. Even if you do - good luck getting decontaminated in the middle of the desert. I hate to say it, but there's a serious argument for being embedded with a military unit on this one - one with detection systems, decontamination units, and medical units, should anything go wrong. That's if your priority is to cover soldiers shaving and cleaning their guns of course - if you want a chance at telling the story you'll need to be on your own. But if you or your colleague are shot, gassed, shelled, or kidnapped - the chances of survival are slim - even with the Centurion training. In fact they refer to their course as a "risk assessment" course.

Don't be an "ugly American."

If you have to sacrifice anything - sacrifice your 3rd and forth pair of anything - you won't be finding too many showers in the desert. The military recommends baby wipes to wash yourself!

Don't have family pix in your wallet.

Don't wear wedding rings or jewelry or any sentimental anything.

Leave the diamond Rolex at home and buy a $20 dollar watch. Maybe two or three to use as currency.

Don't bring alcohol as it will be confiscated at the airport.

Bring a few boxes of cigarettes to trade.

Make sure you don't have any entry visas to a country they might not like (if you have Israeli visas certain countries will deny you entry - and vice versa.)

Take those fancy stickers off of your camera - such as the ones I have that say "The NEW YORK Times."

Don't be aggressive unless you really need to be.

Assume that if you're captured - they won't believe you when you say you're but a journalist… they assume you're working for the U.S. Government - CIA or whatever. Remember, most media members in these countries DO work for the government - and the CIA have pretended to be journalists in the past. So it's a good idea to look as civilian as possible - no military anything on you.

Avoid driving near military convoys - enemies will assume you're part of it.

If you're with the military stay away from two people - the radio guy, and the officer - they're prime targets.

Always keep an eye out for minefields - unlike in the movies, there is no initial "click" when you step on a mine giving you the chance to ponder your S.O.L.ness. It's immediate and some are designed to go off when the second person walks on it… others go off under the weight of vehicles.

Stay away from windows and draw your curtains to help stop flying glass.

Know where the exits are and don't stay on the penthouse floor of a hotel - most fire-ladders don't go past the 6th floor…

Assume your phone lines are being monitored and don't give out any vital information - operate on a "need to know basis." Your rooms are most likely bugged as well and your translator/driver will most likely be de-briefed at the end of your day.

Never travel alone. Never. (Danny Pearl was alone.)

Always let your colleagues know where you are or are going - even if you are traveling in a group - let another group know where you are.

If it doesn't feel right - trust your gut - don't do it.

One of the hardest rules to learn is that when something goes wrong - you're on your own. Although there is safety in numbers and although your colleagues may help - ultimately, expect that:

1. There will be no cell signal.
2. If there is one - there is no 911.
3. If there is 911 - no one will be able to get to you.
4. If no one will answer you cell call - W. isn't answering your satellite phone call.
5. If you're close friends with the President - The Delta forces will not come to save you.

With all of this said - your priority should be to travel light, which is obviously one of the greatest challenges you'll face.

You're one your own. Be safe. No picture is worth your life - let alone injury.

Here is a suggestion list provided by the Military:

Packing List for Media in the Area of Operation (AOR)
The below is the suggested packing list for media visiting the Coalition Forces Land Component Command's Area of Responsibility.


Personal Items: Plan for living in VERY Austere environment and conditions.

*Clothing appropriate for anticipated locations keeping in mind the season of visit. Plan to possibly spend 5 to 10 consecutive days without bath/shower capabilities. (Baby wipes are suggested for personal hygiene)

*Sleeping bag/gear

*Personal bags. Limit 2 (70 lbs each)

*Medications (If you are on any type medications, you must bring ample supply for the duration of your visit. For planning purposes, bring an additional 10-day supply beyond your proposed visit)

Professional Items:

*Recommend minimum amount of gear to accomplish the mission.


*Laptop Computer

*Irridium Phone


Remember your gear will be exposed to VERY Austere environments and conditions. Plan for potential damage caused by the elements.



*Shot Record

*Media Credentials from Representing Agency

*Invitational Travel Orders

*Country/Theater Clearance

*Hold harmless Agreement

*Application for Accreditation

*Ground Rules Agreement

*Embargo Agreement

Protective and Life Support Equipment (Note: Some items may be provided by U.S. military. However, all items are subject to availability)

*Kevlar Helmet

*Fragmentary Vest (Flak Vest)

*Protective Mask (Chemical/Biological)

*Water Canteens or Camelback™ (Hydration is critical and potable water may not available at times)

(Vince Laforet is a staff photographer with The New York Times. He is a frequent contributor to the Sports Shooter Newsletter.)

Related Links:
Vincent Laforet's member page

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