Combat photographers shoot the action Battlefield images influence decisions by commanders

October 18, 1995|By Shirley Leung | Shirley Leung,SUN STAFF

Spc. Jean-Marc Schaible is an Information Age warrior.

He can parachute in with the Army's crack airborne units or hit the beach with the Marines. He's part of Fort Meade's Combat Camera -- the Army's only troop of fighting photographers.

With his 40 pounds of camera equipment, he can send images back to the Pentagon's War Room in minutes.

"The world is on the verge or in the middle of a historic transformation in military warfare," said Steven Metz, a professor at the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. "The key to the revolution is information."

American military photography dates back to the Civil War, with Mathew B. Brady and others capturing the grim images of Antietam and Gettysburg. Today, combat cameramen aren't just shooting for posterity. Digital technology means their images, transmitted from battlefield to commanders, can influence how battles are fought.

The revised mission is so little known, ordinary soldiers mistake the photographers for military public affairs or ci-vilian media. Some soldiers simply don't know how to react to a photographer in fatigues.

"At first [soldiers] are apprehensive because they don't know if you're qualified as they are, if you're a hazard," said Specialist Schaible. The no-nonsense soldier makes sure others know the click from his camera doesn't get in anyone's way.

Combat photography is a tricky assignment for the men and women who have to lug a 35 mm Nikon F-4 or KY27 JVC video camera along with a 9 mm automatic pistol.

"You have to know when to shoot with the gun and when with the camera," said Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Brady, who served in the unit for 2 1/2 years and now is a drill sergeant. "Hopefully, when the instance comes you don't have to do both."

Ken Cooke, a former Combat Camera photography coach, said the Army's way of life makes it hard for the unit's 39 men and 13 women "to be soldiers and photographers."

"Photographers are always bending the rules, but they have to live within all the Army obligations," he said.

The new world of Combat Camera had its baptism under fire during the Panama crisis of 1989. Photographs of the invasion and pursuit of Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega were transmited to President Bush and his advisers within minutes, helping them make important tactical decisions. The technology was put to similar use during Desert Storm.

The unit's success in getting information from the battlefield to anywhere in the world prompted military leaders to reorganize and double its size two years ago. Now the unit, upgraded from a detachment into the 55th Signal Company, goes wherever the Army goes.

About 20 soldiers from Combat Camera went to Haiti in September. Two flew with the 82nd Airborne Division on its aborted invasion mission. Angel Tejada, one of those with the 82nd, is now on assignment in Cuba.

The other photographer, Sergeant Brady, remembers thinking, "What did you get yourself into?"

The next evening he took another flight to Haiti. This time he stayed a month. Specialist Schaible and Specialist Diane Kiser joined him in taking photographs and video of the Haitian army's heavy artillery. Their work helped U.S. Special Forces plan raids to seize weapons.

Getting into the Combat Camera unit is based on a soldier's success at the Defense Visual Information School at Fort Meade or the Defense Photography School at the Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida.

The 1,000 soldiers trained in the Army's photography and media field prize the assignment. Combat Camera goes into the field, ++ follows the action. If you don't make Combat Camera, you could end up behind a public affairs desk, making identification cards, or working in a photo lab.

Most Combat Camera troops are in their 20s and 30s. Several hold degrees in broadcasting or photography, or have civilian experience. One worked at ABC Sports.

For Sgt. Shawn Paine, who grew up on a farm in Harrison, Idaho, Combat Camera has provided a ticket to the world. His three-year tour of duty, completed last week, included field assignments in about 20 countries and a stint with the Marines in Somalia. He now runs a military photo lab in Vincenza, Italy.

His old comrades at Combat Camera are on four-hour recall to Bosnia. Their eyes are fixed on CNN.

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