- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 6, 2004

Security training

I was still a teenager when my father taught me how to scuba dive in a backyard swimming pool, and for decades after I had occasionally rented gear in exotic tropical locales and gone off for a day on the reefs.

It wasn’t until middle age that I finally signed up for a proper scuba certification course; when I did, I was stunned to discover some of the risks I had been taking without ever knowing I was in danger.

So it was for our reporter Sharon Behn — a veteran correspondent who has worked in hazardous areas from Africa to the Middle East to Central Asia — when we sent her last month for a one-week course on how to survive in a combat zone.

“I just hadn’t realized before how little I knew about what to do in the event of a roadside bomb or a mortar attack,” Mrs. Behn said.

In times past, such training was unheard of. Reporters went off to the Vietnam or Korean wars armed mainly with swagger and a dose of good luck. But there is a growing feeling in the industry that it is simply irresponsible for editors to send reporters into combat zones without providing them some professional training.

Mrs. Behn’s class of 11 students included reporters from the Associated Press and Reuters news services, newspapers including Stars & Stripes and the Newark, N.J., Star-Ledger, and two staffers from the human rights monitoring group Human Rights Watch.

A handful of companies now offer the training in the Washington area. Mrs. Behn’s program was conducted by British-owned Centurion Risk Assessment Services Ltd. with on-site training provided by five former Royal Marines.

The class members assembled for the first time at the lobby of the Ramada Inn in Woodstock, Va., and piled into a minibus for the 15-minute drive to a 50-acre compound where the training was to take place.

Mortars and snipers

No sooner had the bus pulled into the wooded compound than shots rang out. A black SUV shot out in front, forcing the bus to stop, and heavily armed men in camouflage jackets and ski masks jumped on board, quickly pulling black hoods over the passengers’ heads.

The hostage-takers began driving the bus, making two stops at each of which a passenger was removed and led away. The rest were eventually taken off the bus and lined up, each with his or her arms on the next person’s shoulders, and led into a building where they were forced to lie down with their arms at their sides, palms upward.

One of the stunned passengers yelled out, “Journalist, I’m a journalist,” to no good effect.

A single shot was heard as the hostages were taken from the room, one by one. At that point their hoods were removed and they were introduced to the men who would be their instructors for the next five days. The whole episode had been videotaped so the group could be shown what they had done right and wrong.

The rest of the program was tame by comparison, but packed with valuable training, according to Mrs. Behn. Typically, days would begin with an hour to 90 minutes of classroom instruction, followed by a trip into the field to put the teaching into practice.

Among other things, the students were taught how to respond to mortar fire as opposed to snipers — freeze in the first case and run away in a zigzag fashion in the second — and what to do if they found themselves in a minefield. They were also taken through a house filled with booby traps and taught how to recognize and deal with them.

A very large part of the course dealt with basic first aid, including how to deal with such events as an impalement or arterial bleeding.

“There was a whole section we did about hostile check points that I think would have helped me when I got arrested by a local militia in southern Sudan in 1989,” Mrs. Behn said.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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