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Marine combat correspondents are their own band of brothers

CAMP PENDLETON — “Combat environments are not always a fast-paced, guns-blazing tempo like you would find in a war video game, but rather a lot of downtime and boredom. Also, war and combat is much less romanticized after you have actually experienced it,” said Staff Sgt. Luis Agostini, Camp Pendleton Public Affairs Chief.
Staff Sgt. Agostini, 30, from New York, marked his 11th anniversary as a Marine the weekend of Aug. 13. He became a combat correspondent for the Marines with no background in journalism at all.
His first glimpse into what combat correspondents did came from the Stanley Kubrick film, “Full Metal Jacket.”
“That wasn’t an inspiration for me to do this,” he said, “but that’s my tie-back…that was my first impression of the Marine Corps.”
All of the combat correspondents are sent to Fort Meade in Maryland for defense information school, a joint-service school where all soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines go to learn to become combat correspondents, combat photographers or combat videographers.
The training is news writing intensive, he said. It’s the core foundation of journalism — writing leads, bridges and the inverted pyramid, he added.
There is no training to get the reporters “used” to combat conditions. All of that is on-the-job-training, he explained.
The staff sergeant had covered the battle of Fallujah and he said he couldn’t help but think back to the Kubrick film and the similarities the film’s urban combat scenes shared with the actual urban fighting and neighborhoods he found himself in.
“Somebody once said, and I agree… ‘the viewfinder is a shield’… and that was the case for me, it was almost surreal; I was a spectator,” he said.
“For me, the fear was at its height beforehand, because you’re always thinking of the ‘what ifs?’ But during it, when it kicks off, you’re following these Marines that, they’re like 19-, 20-year-old Marines, kids, but they were my heroes out there.
“At the time, I was a 24-year-old sergeant, and the squad leader was like a 22-, 21-year-old lance corporal, but I let him lead me. He knew what he was doing…and they took the north side of the city, and I was in awe of them.”
30-year-old Sgt. Heidi Agostini, from Illinois, is married to Luis. She’s been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan and was the lead writer for the Marine Corps’ newest Female Engagement Team initiative. When they deploy, they deploy as a “shop,” which includes the officer, the public affairs officer, the public affairs chief and a handful of combat correspondents, but once in field, the correspondent is on their own. All of the stories they write, they generate themselves.
Their deployment schedules typically last for one year, the same as the command elements. But the correspondents cover the combat battalions, the smaller units, which operate on six to seven month rotation because of their operational up-tempo of patrolling every day, Staff Sgt. Agostini explained. The battalions have shorter rotations because they can’t sustain that pace year-long.
“So the (correspondents) are out there for a year, but they are on the up-tempo of the small units, so they’re expected to maintain that pace year-round, because if you’re not out there, you’re not doing your job,” he added.
Cpl. Ned Johnson has covered the 1st Marine Division as an embedded combat correspondent both as a writer and a broadcaster. He carries with him the Cannon 5D Mark II camera with a 70mm to 200mm lens and also a rifle.
Johnson, 24, from Ft. Worth, Texas, said there is a fine line between covering war and fighting in it. “I always tell my Marines that at some point you’re a Marine and you’re no longer a combat correspondent. That line is something you’re pretty much going to know,” he said.
“In my particular instance, when a squad leader is yelling at everybody else at a direction to fire, you probably should be involved in that,” he said. “When the two or three Marines that are beside you are all firing their weapons, you need to be doing the same.”
“I think we’ve all had our scary moments,” Sgt. Agostini said. “My very first one was Iraq and that’s when the IEDs started popping up all over the place back in ’05. Then in Afghanistan, you heard explosions, and it was normal; you were just used to hearing them,” she said.
“The silent days were strange,” Johnson added.
“Looking back now, it was like ‘what were you thinking?’ kind of things. There was one patrol in Marjah (Afghanistan) that I was on…one of the Marines holding the IED detector starts going off, the beeping comes more frequent and louder. And at the time I was like ‘Oh, I’m going to go over there and take a picture of it.’ And now, you look back and it’s like, ‘No, that’s not what a person does.’ If there’s an indication that a bomb is in a location you don’t go toward it to take a picture of it. But at the time, that’s how you’re wired.”
Despite the dangers they might face while on patrol, once they return to camp, their day isn’t done, yet.
As the units are ridding their gear, their flak jackets, their boots, combat correspondents search for a place to work, sorting through photos and writing stories, Johnson explained.
“So you’re not done when everybody else is like clothes completely off, and asleep, and you’re typing away,” Johnson said.
It isn’t anything they would trade, though.
“An admin clerk is an admin clerk 365 days a year but we can cover different units; we can be in a helicopter one day, or a boat the next day,” Sgt. Agostini said.
The relationships between combat correspondents and the units they are embedded with can start out rocky, Johnson explained, adding that at the beginning they can look at you a little differently.
“They’re just not really sure what you’re about or why you’re there. They just have to get adjusted to why you’re there. But then somebody’s mom sees a photo you took, or somebody’s girlfriend calls and suddenly you’re the coolest guy in the world because you got the camera and the internet,” Johnson said.
“When we write these stories…the names stick with you…the people that you attributed, you remember those people,” Staff Sgt. Agostini said.
“It’s the only real reason that I even am concerned with being a combat correspondent, because it’s a brotherhood, and if we don’t tell their story nobody’s going to,” Johnson said.
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1 comment

Jerry Ray August 23, 2011 at 7:03 am

Good story.

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