Dedicated Combat Camera units photograph operation on the ground, at sea and in air--even in battle. We joined them for two days of training
Quick Shot takes place twice a year in the hills above Azusa, CA—in August, when temperatures often top 100 degrees, and in February, when snow and ice are commonplace—where the environment simulates conditions in which photographers will find themselves in theater. Tactical combat training alternates with media production, so everyone develops the understanding of what is happening on both sides of the camera. The other branches of the military send personnel to Quick Shot, too.
While camping out and shooting cameras and guns might sound like a great way to spend a couple weeks in Southern California, there is a key element to the training that most people would find unwelcome: sleep deprivation. (Military rations called MREs—meals ready to eat—aren’t much fun, either.) “Nobody gets good sleep out here, including the instructors,” says Chief Mass Communication Specialist Keith Jones, who was a first-class petty officer at the time of the training session I attended.
Jones co-developed Quick Shot’s core curriculum to mimic actual missions. “This is a wake-up call,” he says. “The only way to simulate battle conditions is to work the students a lot so they’re tired and stressed. They know they know their stuff, but they’re tired and can’t believe it when they make a mistake. Here is where they learn.”
With the chaos of the battle behind us, the unit, using night-vision gear, leaves the area. As part of the mock detention, they lug the “person of interest” on their shoulders, silently making their way back to a truck parked around a bend. The team works quickly to load up for return to camp—instead of speaking, they communicate via hand-signals.
But as the driver climbs into the truck, something bumps against the steering wheel, and the horn roars and echoes off the canyon walls. The silence that follows is all the more profound as everyone considers the consequences of giving away their position (and angering their commanding officers).
Fortunately, Jones takes a positive view about learning from mistakes. “If it had been on the way in, we would’ve been a bit more upset,” he says later with a smile.
A short drive returns the unit to camp, where the photographers and videographers chow down on MREs and immediately begin downloading their memory cards to Apple MacBook Pro notebook computers. The goal for all Combat Camera units is to edit, caption, and upload their images to the computers—and from there to DVDs or secure military servers—within an hour after returning from a mission. This fast turnaround is often required by battle commanders and the units these photographers cover. Plus, their speed makes them available for another mission should the need suddenly arise.
The photographers, their cameras, and their computers are crowded three or four to a table as they compare photos from the exercise. With the seriousness of the venture behind them, laughs ring out as people relive moments of tension in the pictures. But the deadline still looms, so they quickly get back on task, writing captions for their images.
By the end of the hour, the photographers have assembled a disk’s worth of “prime cuts”—essential photos and 10-sec video highlights. If this were an actual mission, the data would be transmitted by satellite or the disk sent by courier to the proper commanders.