Newspaper, Magazine Pool Reporters Cover Military Exercise With AM-Gallant Eagle
MARCH AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. (AP) _ Friday, the first call-out for the Pentagon’s pool’s fourth activation went out after 10 a.m. Fourteen news representatives were summoned to Andrews, told to arrive no later than 3 p.m. The last group arrived shortly before 4 p.m.
The media was not immediately told where they were going, except that the destination was not overseas and would take only two days. Navy Capt. Steven C. Taylor, pool spokesman, said the activation was the first in which media contacts were not told the exercise was a drill. He also said that this was the first pool activated during business hours, when news of departure might be most likely to leak. It was also the first pool to include women - a magazine reporter from Time and a radio reporter from Nation Public Radio.
The pool was told just before boarding the C-135 that their destination was March Air Force Base, Riverside, Calif., where they were to watch the final day of Gallant Eagle, an exercise of the U.S. Central Command (Centcom). Centcom, the youngest of the U.S. Unified Military Commands, is the successor to the Rapid Deployment Task Force, which President Jimmy Carter created in 1980 in response to the invasion of Afghanistan.
Centcom holds an annual major exercise. On odd years, the exercises are named Bright Star and held somewhere in Centcom’s area of rsponsibility, the crescent stretching from North Africa to Southwest Asia. In even years, Gallant Eagles are held in the desert of the U.S. Southwest to simulate the arid climate and terrain of such nations as Egypt, Somalia and southern Iran.
This year, Gallant Eagle headquarters were at March, with must of the exercise activity taking place at the nearby Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms.
Describing the terrain of Twentynine Palms, Centcom Commander-In-Chief Marine Gen. George B. Crist, 55, said: ″It’s a miserable place. It’s certainly not the sort of place you’d want to take a vacation in.″
Journalists arrived at March about 7:30 p.m. PST. Immediately, they were escorted to a large air-conditioned collapsible conference hall, which was filled with high-ranking officers, including a number of admirals and generals assembled for the pool briefing. All present wore desert camouflage fatigues except the journalists and a representative from the U.S. Information Agency.
As described by briefing officers, Gallant Eagle was not a traditional war game but a series of scripted events designed to improve coordination of the procedures the disparate services use in joint operations. Crist, in his comments, acknowledged that Centcom’s predecessor could not have met its commitments to its region. But today’s Centcom, he said, is a headquarters which can call on troops in a crisis, and has vastly improved sealift and airlift capability. ″It is no longer the paper tiger that critics say it is,″ said Crist.
Centcom, which is headquartered in MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa, Fla., is, however, the only U.S. unified command not located in its area of responsibility.
Reporters were then escorted to their cots in an assigned tent in the March tent city set up for Gallant Eagle. The two women were cordoned off behind a demure curtain at one end of the tent. Before retiring, many of the reporters joined servicemen at the neighboring moral welfare and recreation center, better known as the beer tent. At midnight, reporters fell asleep to the sound of rapid bursts of machine gun fire and 500-pound bombs - the blaring sound track from the movie ″Delta Force″ being shown in a recreation tent nearby.
Next morning, reporters were taken by bus, C-130 prop-driven transport and aging Chinook helicopters to the Mojave Desert for a series of set-piece briefings on the exercises under way. Standing on the edge of Lead Mountain, a lunar-like outcrop, reporters watched F-4s bomb and artillery bombard two imaginary motorized rifle battalions in a 10 kilometer live-fire zone on the plain beyond.
An attempt to show reporters a fly-in of artillery pieces slung beneath sleek new Blackhawk helicopters went awry when the choppers had to refuel. Reporters contented themselves with watching the delivery from their own chopper as they sped to the next briefing in the field.
Whatever the final results of Operation Gallant Eagle, the Pentagon was pleased with how the pool experiment went. Said Taylor: ″I think it went well. We’re not finished evaluating it yet. But we got the reporters there without any word of the operation leaking out, as far as we know.″