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I've just returned from Cobra Gold, a massive U.S.-Thai war games exercise.
You will soon be able to go to GlobalPost's main Thailand page to find my dispatch on a joint forces beach assault — designed to rescue hostages, evacuate stranded civilians or simply deliver tons of supplies under hostile circumstances.
The mock invasion gives insight into how America could have forced aid into Burma during last year's nightmarish Cyclone Nargis. It's a proposition, however radical, that both militaries are at least prepared for. (But consider also that the U.S. military is prepared for a Star Wars-style confrontation with China and other equally far-fetched scenarios.)
Covering Cobra Gold offered rare access to places few will ever see — an open-air squad bay where I bunked with Marines before the assault, the confluence of hobnobbing Thai and U.S. generals and more. So here's a behind-the-scenes look at what I couldn't squeeze into my main dispatch.
Inside an amphibious vehicle: Do you hate elevators? Don't join the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit. You might end up inside an amphibious assault vehicle, a heavily-armed, Transformers-esque machine that can skid across seawater and then mount the beach on tank treads. They can roll out of ship bellies into the sea and race across the surf at surprisingly fast speeds. The ride, however, is sickening. It's dark in there and the vehicle bounces hard on the waves. The cabin fills with diesel fumes and the floor fills with sea water. A photographer for the Thai-language Combat Magazine rode along with Thai Marines and later confided that some of them puked. Apparently, this happens a lot.
The Generals' tent: As marines invaded the beach below, high-ranking U.S. and Thai officers watched from far above on a craggy hill top. This included three U.S. generals and their staffs. The Thai military had set up tents, folding chairs and even speakers broadcasting military anthems.Marine snipers were brought in to show off their gear, including .50-caliber rifles. That's one of them above, playing show-and-tell with a Thai sailor.
At the cliff's edge, they all watched the hour-long spectacle as Thai sailors served Cokes and Fantas from plastic trays. And when the show was over, they all retreated to their respective vehicles: rented minivans for the U.S. senior officers, new-model Mercedes for their Thai counterparts.
Sidenote: I was impressed by Army Lt. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, the Cobra Gold commander, who sought out snipers and thanked them for their Iraq tours. Then he whipped out a few Leatherman-style hand tools and asked, "Got any use for one of these?" before handing a few to the guys. And, no, he didn't know a reporter was watching.
China Can Watch But Can't Play: Thai and U.S. troops are Cobra Gold's stars, followed by Singaporean troops and a few Indonesians and Japanese. But pretty much every other Asian nation outside of North Korea is allowed to at least send top brass to watch the spectacle. Naturally, this includes China. And it's no secret that America wants the Chinese to watch Cobra Gold — a shuddering display of military might in a region where China is extending its sway. Knowing Cobra Gold might be my only chance to catch a Chinese general for a few (likely awkward) questions, I scanned the crowd on the aforementioned VIP hilltop. No luck. Maybe next year.
The Elusive Skoal: Smokeless tobacco, affectionately called "dip" in my home state of North Carolina, does not exist in Thailand ... or so I thought. There are entire message board threads full of expats who crave this unhealthy substance and all of them end up frustrated. (Don't worry about why I know this. I just do.) However, once a year, if you're authorized to enter a U.S. Marine Corps travelling exchange store, you just might just find Skoal sold in bulk quantities. And at very reasonable prices.
Special thanks to the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit's public affairs team, who offered great access for me and Global Post photographer Pailin Wedel. As a former military beat reporter with Gannett, I can say there are easy-going public affairs officers and those who block reporters at every turn — but this team was particularly capable and smart.