Packing for War


By James W. Crawley, MRE Webmaster

I have covered a couple of real military operations and dozens of training ops in nearly 10 years of covering the Navy and Marines and here are some ideas, observations and caveats about equipment, personal gear and other techniques that can be usual to other journalists covering military operations, either embedded or unilateral.


Before covering a war, peacekeeping operation or any other situation in a foreign nation, journalists should have a complete physical to assess their health. Frankly, one should be in reasonably good health before leaving. Any medical conditions should be discussed with the doctor.

Obtaining prescriptions overseas can be difficult or impossible even with a physician’s orders. Or, in some countries, it’s incredibly easy albeit caveat emptor. Better bring an adequate supply (I suggest having a supply that will cover 150 percent of the time one anticipates being overseas).

Even journalists who are embedded with U.S. military personnel should not depend on military medical care except in extreme cases. Most military medical units, except the largest field hospitals, do not carry common drugs like anti-histamines, insulin, Lipitor, blood pressure medication and other drugs used to treat chronic diseases. Remember, military medicine is geared to treating extremely healthy, predominately young men and women. Knowing basic (preferably, intermediate) first-aid should be a requirement for any journalist entering a war zone. Not so much for oneself but to assist wounded colleagues and others. If you are seriously wounded, you will need someone else’s assistance, so it’s best that all journalists get some training in first-aid, either from the local Red Cross or hostile environment training firms, like Centurion or AKE.

Knowing first-aid is one thing, having the equipment is also important. Several good first-aid kits are on the market and available from outdoor stores, such as REI; mail-order firms; or obtainable from clinics and physicians catering to adventure expeditions.

Some include sterile syringes, IV tubing and needles that are particularly useful for travels in Third World areas with inadequate medical facilities and non-sterile conditions.

Quikclot, a clotting aid that recently went on the market, also may be useful for journalists. Sprinkled on a heavily bleeding wound, the substance can be a lifesaver until proper treatment can be reached.


Not all laptop computers are created equal.

Before taking a laptop into a war zone — or any place outside North America, Europe, Australia, Japan or Korea — consider the “What Ifs?”

What if the computer fails? What if I’m in a sandstorm of biblical proportions? What if the IT staff forgot to verify the CD-ROM burner software is installed?

What if?

Being in a war zone (or any Third World) nation with a laptop can be a challenging and often frustrating experience.

Finding a repair service or replacing hardware or software can be difficult, impossible or time consuming. And, if you are using a Mac, forget-about-it! Apple computers and service are rare outside North America and Europe.

Environmental conditions — dust, sand, rain and temperature — can be harsh. Excessive handling also can be a problem. During Operation Iraqi Freedom, many computers were damaged and rendered inoperable by weather or handling.

Being prepared is the key to preventing problems.

First, know your computer. Practice operating your laptop and the associated hardware, such as satellite phones, modems, CD-ROM burners. Also, become familiar with handling emergency repairs, including changing out accessories and hard drives, in the field. Journalists might consider purchasing one of several models of ruggedized computers that are on the market. The laptops come in several grades, based on their protection against dust and water. Price is commensurate with the level of protection. While the laptops cost more, the added cost is the same or less than purchasing two computers — the original one and a replacement.

For everyone without a ruggedized computer, here are some suggestions:

Tape closed any openings, such as power inputs, PCMCIA card ports, earphone plugs and air vents, while the computer is OFF. Make sure to untape any air vents while using the computer.

Bag it. Buy several large (1 or 2 gal. capacity) recloseable plastic bags. Insert the laptop in the bag whenever not being used.
Use a padded laptop case insert. Have company computer department format a replacement hard drive with same operating system and software as the laptop. The hard drive is the most susceptible component to dust and a busted computer might be resurrected by substituting the replacement hard drive.
Obtain a “rescue disk” to boot up your computer. The computer department can assist.
Take along backup copies of installed software (Windows, Office, etc.)
Too often a journalist will discover that being away from the office means they are without often used reference materials, like dictionaries, thesauri and style books. One suggestion: get CD-ROM versions of encyclopedias, dictionaries and other reference materials.

For OIF, I made copies of various military reference sources and other information on CD-ROMs. I carried the Encyclopedia Britannica; a dictionary; the Koran (in Arabic and searchable English translation); an atlas; CIA and military country guides for the Mideast; open-source information on U.S., British, Iraq and other nations’ militaries, including satellite imagery of Iraqi military bases; and copies of all pertinent beat stories. (Unfortunately, the material was “combat loss” along with several music CDs when I was medevaced from Baghdad with a kidney stone.)


Which sat phone should you take? Pick one and take two. The right satellite phone to take depends on what you do.

A photographer will want a high-speed sat phone to move digital photo files, while a reporter might only need to move text so could use a handheld, slow-speed sat phone.

But, there may be other considerations too. Staying in touch with the home office and scanning the Internet for news may require a sat phone terminal with some oomph. A regional B-GAN terminal might be useful.

A handheld sat phone, such as an Iridium, Thuraya or Globalstar, is handy for voice communications with editors and spouses.

A laptop terminal, such as a Thrane & Thrane Communicator or BGAN, can handle heavy data demands, like photos or browsing the Internet. A couple of linked terminals can even be used as a videophone.

Clothing and personal stuff

Body armor or not?
As insurgent attacks increase on military forces and non-combatants alike, journalists need protection.

Body armor is one consideration. While wearing body armor, either overtly or covertly (under clothes), is a personal decision, there are certain situations, such as when covering military forces in combat situations, when wearing a vest is advised.

Clothing should be of such color and appearance as to not draw attention to oneself. While I eschew wearing military-style camouflage, I wouldn’t wear a red shirt in a bullring or in Iraq.

Long-sleeve shirts and long pants are good in all climates because they provide protection from sun and dirt. Other must-have apparel items are money belts and other concealment items to hide money and ID.

Gloves can provide hand protection and/or warmth. I carry a pair of leather gloves for climbing over fences, digging through debris and other manual labor. I carry a pair of winter gloves for warmth and protection against sand and wind.

For Iraq duty, I create a personal set of flash cards that I laminated and hung around my neck along with my press cards.

I had several cards printed front and back with phone numbers for editors, public affairs offices, computers, cell and satellite phones, family members, airlines and hotels. Cards also included information about using the sat phones. The cards came in handy on several occasions.

Not sure what to take to Iraq. Here are some suggestions from journalists who have been there. Not really a mandatory gear list, just some ideas that could be useful when you are out in the middle of some unforgiving region.


Personal medications (have enough to cover 150 percent of anticipated days outside US; get copies of physicians’ prescriptions)
Anti-histamines (prescription, like Zyrtec or Allegra, and over-the-counter)
Imodium (over-the-counter)
Cipro (prescription)
Lip balm
Suntan lotion (30+ SPF)
Foot powder
Neosporin cream
Expedition-grade first-aid kit (or customized kit for trauma wounds) (get a doctor’s note on letterhead if it contains IV needles and/or syringes; helpful for clearing customs in some countries)
Anti-malarial (prescription)
Tylenol or Advil (over-the-counter)
Tylenol 3 (with codeine) (for extra painful situations) (prescription)
Benedryl lotion/cream
Anti-fungal cream or powder
Insect repellant (contains DEET)


Leatherman-style multi-tool
Penknife (backup knife)
50 feet of parachute cord
AA batteries
Power inverter (to hook to car battery)
Extension cord
240-volt to 120-volt converter and plugs

Professional Laptop (ruggedized, CD-ROM burner)
Preloaded replacement hard drive
USB Flash Drive (to trade files and save backup copies)
Compact flash card and adapter (to trade photos/files with photographers)
Backup software (including rescue disk)
Reference material (on USB flash drive, CD-ROM or paper)
Digital recorder (downloadable to laptop) or micro-cassette recorder
Arab-English phrase book, flash cards or dictionary
Shortwave radio
Calculator (credit-card sized)
Business cards (English and Arabic)

Clothing and personal gear

Body armor (non-military issue, Class III or better, with side protection)
Kevlar helmet (for accompanying U.S. forces)
Goggles (non-fogging with a good seal if wearing glasses)
Sleeping bag (20-degree or colder rated)
Sleeping bag pad
Poncho liner or similar water-repelling shell
Camelback-style water container
Long pants
Long-sleeve shirts
Hiking boots (extra bootlaces)
Gore-Tex jacket (depending on season)
Leather gloves
Shower shoes (flip-flops)
Ear plugs (use for sleeping in noisy environments such as ships)
Mosquito netting


Sat phone (Iridium, Thuriya or Globalstar)
Sat phone (high-speed — ISDN or BGAN)
FRS walkie-talkies (if traveling with photographer and/or fixer/translator)

Military Reporters & Editors