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Released Februrary 13, 2004

By Christopher Mapp

HATTIESBURG -- As soldiers-in-training, Army ROTC cadets at The University of Southern Mississippi learn how to march in time, fire a weapon and defend their country.

This semester, however, the Department of Military Science is teaming up with the School of Mass Communication and Journalism to teach skills better suited for the briefing room than the battlefield.

As part of a joint endeavor, senior cadets are reaching out to journalism students in an attempt to improve their media relations skills. Both departments are in the College of Arts and Letters.

Writing, briefing, and problem solving are but a few of the tactics up-and-coming officers will develop during the course. Journalism students will benefit by acting as "embedded" reporters during ROTC activities, including a three-day field training exercise at Camp Shelby Feb. 27-29.

The end result, Lt. Col. Kevin Dougherty hopes, could help tear down the wall between the two historically antagonistic professions.

"I think if you get ROTC and journalism students together, you'll find they like the same things - pizza, music, movies. The more time they spend together, the more they see that they're alike. At this crucial point in their careers, we want to teach them about trust and familiarity," Dougherty said.

Since the Vietnam War, the media and the military have shared a strained relationship, marked by institutional distrust and mutual suspicion. During the peak of this contentious dynamic, the military and media came to view each other as something just short of enemies, Dougherty said.

"When someone like General Westmoreland is telling soldiers they shouldn't trust journalists, and someone like Walter Cronkite is telling journalists they shouldn't trust the military, there's going to be a problem with how the two perceive each other," he said.

In an attempt to "tell their side of the story," Dougherty said, the armed forces began to defrost that relationship by providing media with more information and access during their tactical maneuvers. Operation Desert Storm marked a new era in which 24- hour live press coverage became both a reality and an expectation.

This relationship reached new heights during Operation Iraqi Freedom. For the first time, journalists enjoyed full-access to the battlefield, reporting from inside fighting units and even relaying broadcasts as the action unfolded.

"Vietnam sort of gave the military a bad name," said senior cadet KaRensa Polk. "Embedding journalists gave us an opportunity to show the other side of what we do."

Polk said along with improving the military's image and closing the divide with journalists, she hopes ROTC students will learn valuable new skills from this project.

"An important key to being a leader is having good communication skills," Polk said. "People see us as just fighters, but we do so much more. We may have a uniform on, but we're also human underneath."

The first journalist to volunteer for the project was Chad Applebaum, photo editor for the Student Printz. Applebaum said he was "thrilled to have an opportunity to work with the ROTC on campus."

"In our profession, you interact with a lot of different people, and as students, we need to be prepared to deal with that. Plus, I think this project will help bridge the gap between the two student organizations," Applebaum said.

Other "embedded" opportunities this semester include a Black Hawk helicopter orientation on campus, paintball exercises at Camp Shelby, an intercollegiate field-training competition, a military ball and, finally, commissioning of officers.

Dougherty said a panel discussion featuring military, journalism and student representatives is planned for later this spring.

Maj. Gregory Hargett, an assistant professor of military science at Southern Miss, said he knew of no other program in the country where cadets could interact with student journalists in the field.

"This is a chance for journalism students to come in and observe the day in the life of a cadet. We want them to see everything, warts and all, and report what they see. As soldiers, we feel we don't have anything to hide," Hargett said.


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April 20, 2004 4:09 PM