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Monday, April 21

Chief briefer says West Point prepared him for spotlight

By Alex Neill | Army Times

DOHA, Qatar - Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, the primary face of the military briefings on the war in Iraq, gives the media mixed reviews on its handling of the big story.

In an exclusive interview, the 44-year-old one-star general acknowledged the frustration with the information gap created by journalists' real-time war reporting on the battlefield. But Brooks said the historic move to ``embed'' some 600 journalists with troops worked out better than most military officials or media expected, and he defended his own, sometimes-vague performance during the briefings from the U.S. Central Command headquarters here.

Brooks, who broke a color barrier during his West Point days, also discussed his background and how being the first black person to hold a top post at the U.S. Military Academy prepared him for his high-profile stint fielding questions from reporters around the world.

``There's real-time information that gets put out there that we often don't have military reporting on,'' said Brooks, referring to the work of embedded journalists. ``And so when I say (at the briefing), `I haven't heard or seen the report,' I mean I haven't heard or seen the report. It's not that I'm ducking it.''

Still, Brooks said he believes the embedding experiment worked out well and credited the lessons learned from the Persian Gulf War, when the military greatly restricted media access to the battlefield. Back in 1991, he said, many senior military leaders believed that was a mistake.

Now, he said, journalists have learned what it means to be under fire and share the bonds that are forged through combat. Brooks said he believes much of the long-standing distrust between troops and journalists has been erased and there has been an added benefit for both sides of being able to see the battlefield live.

(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM)

``When you see a task force moving down a highway into the center of Baghdad, weapons turned to flanks, destroying everything that encountered it,'' Brooks said, ``you get a very different picture.''

Brooks said that the reporters here, who represented media outlets as diverse as daily newspapers to Popular Mechanics and ESPN, ranged widely in their knowledge of military affairs. He gave some ``As'' and others no worse than a ``C,'' but noted some media members ``either had an agenda or did not represent themselves as journalists.''

(END OPTIONAL TRIM)

He declined to give an overall grade to the media coverage.

``Even uninformed questions may lead you to an opportunity to help reinforce the understanding of what is that we're doing,'' Brooks said.

Early media training

Brooks, whose father is a retired Army general, said he was introduced to the pressures of the media spotlight more than 20 years ago when he became the first black person to lead West Point's more than 4,300 cadets. During his senior year of 1979-80, Brooks was named first captain of cadets - the highest student position at the U.S. Military Academy. Brooks' predecessors in the first captain's post include generals Robert E. Lee, Douglas MacArthur and John J. Pershing.

Brooks' senior year was pivotal for West Point, which also graduated its first female cadets in 1980. Today, Brooks' older brother, Brig. Gen. Leo Brooks Jr., is West Point's No. 2 leader.

As first captain, Brooks attracted nationwide media interest. ``Some of it was curiosity, but the intensity of it was not unlike this. So I really was warmed up for this a long time ago,'' he said.

The honor also brought hate mail, he said, something he took as part of his education.

``It was a rich set of experiences at an early age. But I put that behind me so that I could be an infantry 2nd lieutenant,'' he said, referring to his post-graduation career track.

An academic standout at West Point, Brooks was also a star forward on the academy's basketball team, which was then coached by Mike Krzyzewski, now the near-legendary ``Coach K'' of the Duke basketball team.

Brooks said he accepts that he is seen by some as a symbol of success as a high-ranking black man in the Army. But he says his race does not define him.

``It's a byproduct of who I am, not a focus. So if I'm devoted to my duty, to my wife...if I'm part of a family in which values are important and all that reflects on me as a positive symbol, then that's mine to carry,'' he said.

(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM)

Back at West Point, Brooks was keeping the long days that are now his routine. It led to one of his not so proud moments, when he fell asleep while studying and eating pizza - with embarrassing results.

``I found myself face down in a pizza at one point,'' Brooks said, laughing. ``And of course, cadets being as they are, they got a picture of it. Someone got a picture. I've got to burn it.''

(END OPTIONAL TRIM)

Always an infantryman

Here at the war command center, Brooks' day starts at 5:05 a.m. He runs from meeting to meeting, coordinating the military's operational picture and how it will be portrayed in the daily briefing. It's much like a television news crew that's always on deadline.

His background as an infantry leader serves him well in understanding the developments on the battlefield and the interests of all the military components. It's clear that his heart is still with the troops in the field, particularly the 3rd Infantry Division. He commanded the division's 1st Brigade in a peacekeeping mission in Kosovo until last summer.

The tour in Kosovo had its dangers, but it was not combat. When the war in Iraq started, he was an observer as many of the men he commanded and worked with raced toward Baghdad, leading the coalition charge.

``Whenever you see your unit perform well, the first thing you get is a tremendous sense of pride,'' Brooks said. ``The next thing you get is a degree of concern, like a parent.''

Brooks said he has gotten some criticism for not discussing how many people were killed in battle during his military briefings. But makes no apologies for avoiding a discussion of numbers.

`` These are people I know. They're never going to be a number to me,'' he said.``...Whether that's department policy or Pentagon policy or not, that's someone else's choice. My choice is not to treat my friends like numbers.''