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Steve Kuzj interviewing a soldier.

Recent journalism grad Steve Kuzj interviewing a soldier at Camp Ripley.

Embedded at Camp Ripley

U students report on military activities at training camp

By Pauline Oo

June 10, 2008

During the Iraq War, journalists have experienced unprecedented access to the battlefield. They're covering the ongoing conflict, which began on March 20, 2003, like no other because the U.S. military has allowed reporters and photographers to travel embedded or attached to a military unit.

Last week, six University of Minnesota journalism students and alumni had the chance to be embedded with troops from the 1st Combined Arms Battalion, 194th Armor Regiment, who were undergoing training at Camp Ripley near Little Falls, Minnesota. Like real journalists in an armed conflict, the U students signed safety waivers and contracts restricting what they could report. (Each of the students had to write, produce, and edit stories about their time at the camp.) "I have learned so much already in our three days here," said Megan Kadrmas, in an e-mail interview. "But I think the most important thing I have learned so far is that the military and the soldiers are not what I was expecting them to be. Everyone has been extremely kind, courteous, helpful, and candid about their jobs. They are excited to share their knowledge and are curious to learn about our jobs as well."

Lt. John Hobot, an Iraq War veteran and now full-time Minnesota National Guard member, came up with the unique opportunity for the college students, as well as the soldiers. Hobot knew how difficult it was to be exposed to media for the first time during battle and felt that soldiers could benefit from media training. Hobot contacted Dennis Donovan, a research fellow at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute and lead organizer of the Warrior to Citizen Campaign, a statewide grassroots effort that provides community support to returning soldiers and their families. The weeklong program (June 2-7) was designed with the help of National Guard Lt. Col. Kevin Olson.

Training for the front lines

"I could not have asked for a better real-world experience," said Kevin Keen, a broadcast journalism and Spanish major. His time at Camp Ripley was part of his senior honors project. He plans to create a five-part video news series on various topics, such as reintegration and women in the military. To watch some video samples, visit the Warrior to Citizen Campaign.

"The opportunities we're offered here are quite remarkable, considering we're just students," said alum Stephen Kuzj, who graduated in the spring. "We've gone for rides in tanks, fired weapons, and been right beside the troops as they train. We're learning a lot about how the military operates--how the chain of command works, how weapons and vehicles function, etc. We're also getting to know a lot about the individual soldiers--why they joined the National Guard, what their experience in Iraq was like, [and] how their families feel about it." The six students (four of whom are recent U grads) worked in groups, producing 90- to 120-second news packages, which include video clips and one-page articles on some "newsworthy" aspect of what they did that day.

"The hardest part about being here is the amount of work we're putting into each of our stories day in and day out," said Kuzj via e-mail, midway through the program. "Us broadcast folks are required to finish one TV news package each day and are often up working on our stories until [midnight]. This may not seem too late, but when you have to wake up each morning at 6 a.m., the lack of sleep can wear you out."

Lauren Van Proosdy
U student Lauren Van Proosdy trying her hand at a sniper rifle.

Photo by Stephen Kuzj

Kuzj is now writing a couple of stories for The Minnesota Daily, as is Kadrmas, who is also working on an article for Focus magazine about hip-hop culture in the military.

"I have always wanted to be a war correspondent, similar to Anderson Cooper [the Emmy-award winning journalist with CNN]," said Kuzj. "I feel that there are a lot of important stories and happenings over in Iraq right now that aren't being told. I believe I could show the American public a side to war they don't hear about in today's media. This experience seemed like the perfect thing to get me started toward [my dream career]."