Journalists in Army fatigues

By Berni K. Moestafa, The Jakarta Post, 05/18/2003

By the time the soldiers banged our truck with their wooden canes, shouting, "EVERYONE OUT, OUT, OUT, OUT!", I was already beginning to ask myself, ""What the hell am I doing here?""

Entering the military training camp of the Army Strategic Reserves Command (Kostrad) may not have been a good idea after all.

The hills of Mount Sangga Buana in the West Java regency of Karawang is where tough guys brave the harsh training to become a Kostrad soldier.

But last week, Kostrad instructors had their hands full with a different, more tender sort of recruit than usual: Fifty-four reporters. They were to be embedded with soldiers in the restive province of Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam -- but only after they had completed the four-day military training course.

So we jumped out of the trucks, dressed in full military regalia, a co-ed group of men and women in all kinds of shapes and sizes, and differing in age by probably as much as 15 years between the oldest and youngest "recruits".

After walking about half a kilometer up a gravel road, singing Halo Halo Bandung all the way, we entered the lower end of the camp, which was actually the parking lot.

To access the training camp itself, we had to run up steep stairs with over 200 steps, gunfire cracking over our heads in greeting. Not surprisingly, a few of us collapsed from exerting too much energy over too short a time.

Such a pathetic initial performance raised doubts as to whether the reporters, who represented some of Indonesia's leading media, could cope with four days of Kostrad's military training.

Admittedly, it was not much of a boot camp to begin with.

First of all, we were the first reporters to ever train here, and the experience was as new to us as it was to the Kostrad instructors.

They had therefore lowered the level of the exercises so that everyone would be able to pass four days of constant drills.

Second, if a group of news-thirsty reporters can drive even a seasoned government official mad, don't expect military trainers to fare any better -- especially if they have to face 54 media people at once.

Indeed, one might reverse the question and ask how instructors could cope with four days of trying to force reporters into submission.

In contrast to soldiers, reporters are encouraged to argue with their superiors. This cultural disparity produced a number of moments when our poor instructors faced more questions than they had asked for.

And because we were reporters and not wannabe tough guys, the instructors refrained from laying down harsh disciplinary measures on us. No slaps in the face, kicks in the butt or brute punishments that one would normally expect during boot camp.

The other factor that greatly reduced the stress level was a healthy dose of humor. Luckily, we had four or five guys in the group who must have been the class clowns at school.

Even the meanest of all our instructors, who goes by the nickname "Ugly Face", could not resist a good laugh when someone cracked a joke, which -- to the detriment of his image -- occurred quite often.

But after four days, did all the sweating and laughing result in anything? Apparently, yes, and more than our trainers had hoped to achieve.

Some of the drills, like distinguishing the sound of gunfire from different rifles or on first aid, had been too short. Still, we managed to impress our trainers, who said we averaged better than many other soldiers.

Now with the war in Aceh looming, I still don't know what exactly drove me to accept my colleague's request to accompany her during Kostrad's four-day drill.

After all, the training was just the beginning of possibly covering real combat in Aceh. A not-so-exciting prospect, given that four days of preparation is a far cry from the months of training soldiers undergo to steel themselves for battle.

It may have been out of solidarity or a plain lust for adventure that I volunteered -- probably both.

But once in Aceh, I may find myself facing another situation and asking, "What the hell am I doing here?"