Fox News Channel reporter Bret Baier and MTV: Music Television correspondent Gideon Yago had the same sobering takeaway from their stints at the Pentagon's boot camp for the media.
A bad case of razor burn can spell doom when you're attacked with biological or chemical weapons.
"You have to have your body covered — gloves, gas mask — and if you have a shaving cut or something like that, and it's exposed, potentially it's a real problem if you're in a contaminated environment," said Baier, who trained to be an "embed" in Iraq.
Added Yago, "If you have the tiniest nick in your face, and you get into an area that's got biotoxins, call a minister."
And for anyone who's attended press boot camp — and tried to put a mask on while stuck in a tear-gas-filled chamber — "nine seconds" takes on an ominous meaning.
As has been widely reported, if and when war with Iraq breaks out, the American press will be granted unprecedented access to the fighting by actually accompanying U.S. military units.
The armed forces are making room for more than 500 press "embeds." The Pentagon has tried to prepare the Fourth Estate for combat through week-long boot camp sessions at the U.S. Marine Corps training facility in Quantico, Va.
Baier and Yago are among those who have gone through the government training, with Baier attending one of the first sessions of camp.
Other "embeds," such as Cable News Network's Gary Tuchman, have undergone "surviving hostile regions" courses sponsored by their own networks, similar to the training the Pentagon recently offered.
The first-aid portion of press boot camp made a real impression on both Baier and Yago — particularly a slide that showed a soldier with viscera spilling from his body. The medical lesson: Don't try to push those organs back in.
Miraculously, the soldier survived because his medics did the right thing.
"It was the most gruesome instruction you can imagine," Baier said. "And it was very eye-opening, in that it's possible to save somebody's life even if it's to that point."
The following are capsule accounts of Baier, Tuchman and Yago's experiences.
FNC's Bret Baier
Baier, FNC's national security correspondent, attended the Pentagon's very first press boot camp, held in December in Quantico. Based on suggestions from his class, he believes the Pentagon altered its training to make it less tutorial and more hands-on.
Baier's group started its training in North Carolina, traveling in a small hovercraft 20 miles out into the sea to spend the night on an aircraft carrier.
"The guy next to me, from the Washington Times,
lost his lunch getting out there," Baier said.
That was followed by a visit to a submarine, a cutter and destroyer in Norfolk, Va.
But it appears that for subsequent boot-camp groups, the Pentagon eliminated those nautical jaunts and went straight to what Baier called the "real hard stuff" in Quantico.
"We went to urban warfare training, and then after that we went to this area where you were essentially walking into this situation where there were two people who had very complex wounds — bleeding, gunshot wounds and a broken arm with the bone popping out — going on," Baier said. "It was very realistic as far as how it looked. They were, of course, acting out the pain, and you had to guess what to do."
The first-aid instruction included viewing the slide of the badly wounded Marine. But the most intense training in Quantico related to "NBC" — nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.
"You talk about gruesome slides — some of the chemical and biological weapons and the results of those are truly frightening," Baier said.
During that training, press members wearing gas masks and "hazmat"
protective suits were led into a "confidence chamber," filled with a kind of tear gas.
"Then they tell you to close your eyes and hold your breath and take your mask off," Baier said.
He and his fellow reporters were then told to "clear" their masks and put them back on — which is easier said than done.
"You have to get the seal around your face and have to blow and clear the mask," Baier said. "Some of the stuff is still in there and you kind of feel it. Your eyes start to water and that sort of thing.
"A couple of people had to leave, because they didn't manage to clear it or get the mask back on their face. People were spitting and snotting. Somebody really sucked in all the gas and they had to run out."
Baier's group was told it had 10 seconds to get the mask on. In a real attack, taking longer than that means incapacitation — or death.
Yago, who took the course after Baier, was told the "drop-dead" time was nine seconds.
While most of the conventional embeds are already overseas, Baier said he has a chance to get a slot with Special Operations, which only a select few reporters will have.
Being in the military's care is contrary to the skepticism and constant questioning that is part of the very nature of the U.S. press, Baier said. But on the battlefield, reporters can't afford to question any orders and directions they are given from the military officers.
"The bottom line here is, you've got to trust them because your life is in their hands, essentially," he said. "It's a different scenario than we're used to. You can still be skeptical of the administration, of their policy, of what they're doing. But on the ground, when you're with these troops, your life hangs in the balance."
CNN's Gary Tuchman
Long before terrorism hit home, CNN correspondent Tuchman had already attended a special boot camp for the press.
Tuchman took a "surviving hostile regions" course sponsored by his own network back in early 2001. He's already used what he learned, like his lessons on mines, in reporting from Ground Zero, the former site of the World Trade Center, and in Afghanistan. He'll also use that training as an "embed" with the U.S. Air Force in Iraq.
While many "embeds" took Pentagon-sponsored war training in the past two months, Tuchman, roughly two years ago, was part of a group of correspondents, producers and photographers CNN invited to try a week-long training course in Atlanta, to see their reaction.
"We took it and said we hope we don't have a situation where we're going to have to use this," Tuchman recalled. "As soon as 9/11 happened, I immediately thought about that."
CNN's "hostile regions" course was not meant to train its journalists to be soldiers, according to Tuchman.
"We're learning how to be journalists who can take care of the people we work with and take care of ourselves. We learned about battlefield awareness, about how to remain calm, what to do when you come under fire, what to do when you cross open ground when you're under fire."
A big lesson of the training is "not to pretend we're someone we're not," according to Tuchman. "Our job, if anything happens to us, is to be honest and say who we are. We do not wear uniforms and we're not armed and we can't be."
To further prep himself for his coming Middle East tour, in January Tuchman took a CNN-sponsored, two-day course on chemical, biological and radiological weapons.
Like many of his journalist colleagues, Tuchman was shown gruesome slides of gas and biological attack victims. And like Baier, Tuchman went through the test drill in which he had to get his gas mask on in the dark, in nine seconds flat.
In his CNN course, unlike the Pentagon course, tear gas wasn't actually released.
"They used smelling salts … we didn't have actual gases," Tuchman said.
CNN boot-camp trainees did get some tips about prolonging their chances of survival when trying to get a gas mask on during a chemical or biological weapon attack.
"We were taught if you hold your breath you can buy a little more time," Tuchman said. "But you have to hold your breath from the beginning to the end. It's scary, there's no question about it."
Tuchman acknowledged that there's much skepticism about how "embed" journalists will be able to remain impartial when they are literally "in" with the U.S. troops.
"I know there are some who say, 'If you're with the government, you can't cover it,'" Tuchman said. "We don't have a crystal ball. We don't know how it will work yet. But the fact that we're there gives us the ability to see things and report things that we could not see and report before."
MTV's Gideon Yago
Although Yago will be not be an embed in the event of war with Iraq, he underwent the Pentagon's five-day press boot camp in February.
That was right before he went on an assignment to Kuwait, where he interviewed Marines — some as young as 17 — and Kuwaiti teens about the potential war.
Yago said he attended the fourth, and rumored to be the last, Pentagon-sponsored press boot camp.
"The first day was very much learning how to read maps and orientation and then going out into the field and practically applying those skills," Yago said.
"Then it went from the basic stuff of how to put up a tent, how to get a good water supply, to identifying unexploded land mines in the field, how to embark and disembark on a helicopter and getting used to what live fire sounds like, and how to adapt accordingly."
Like Baier and Tuchman, Yago found the biological and chemical attack training — conducted for protection against weapons like blister gas and nerve gas — to be unnerving. The hands-on training in the gas chamber was especially tough.
"The big emphasis they kept drilling in our heads was learn to know your equipment, learn to love your equipment, because it will save your life, hypothetically," Yago said.
"So after giving us a harrowing demonstration of what these weapons can do, they brought us to a gas chamber, loaded it up with tear gas, had us break the seal and take off our gas masks.
"That was just to see what it's like under stressed conditions to try to get a gas mask on, gas mask off, and just how little of the agent actually has to enter the mask for it to be potentially fatal."