Inside the Military's National Training Grounds

May 3, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
Before our troops head to Iraq they enter a realistic world of the Middle East just hours from the Central Valley. Roadside bombs explode several times a day, and gunfire ricochets through the streets of a makeshift Iraqi village.It's a sunny, windy day in the town of Medina Wasl. The villagers stroll through the street as Iraqi policemen keep a watchful eye out for insurgents.

This is the National Training Center at Fort Irwin California, about 35-miles northeast of Barstow in the Mojave Desert. The bomb blasts are simulated, the gunshots are blanks, but the action is real enough to shake up even the most seasoned of soldiers.

The Army boasts its training is the best and most realistic in the world and it's spared no expense to construct three dimensional buildings, hire actors and employ the most high tech equipment available.

"The way it works is there is blank ammunition that gets put in here, so it's going to simulate the same acoustics and the same bang as real ammunition would, however, it does not project out of the weapon system," said Captain John Martinez with the United States Army.

Captain Martinez explains the military's advanced laser tag system. Every soldier, role player, building and vehicle has a target with a sensor. Martinez is what the Army calls an observer controller; what the rest of us would call a trainer. "We work behind the scenes so that everything looks completely seamless to the unit. So it's very much like a Hollywood set and I'm making sure everything is scripted and goes off accordingly."

Captain Martinez and 300 other observer controllers get together months in advance to write out the scripts for each unit to follow. The buildings are converted shipping containers covered with realistic-looking facades. Many are two or more stories high.

700 actors, including several hundred Iraqi nationals, play the roles of town officials, shopkeepers and villagers.

Jamie Marchant's husband is a soldier at Fort Irwin. She wanted to play a role so she could better understand her husband's career. In the process, she's learned about the Iraqi culture and picked up a few Arabic words. "As a greeting you'll either say 'ma haba" or 'hasa lama lakem'. It's like a blessing," said Marchant. : "I've only been married to my husband two years and for someone who's had no affiliation with the military at all it's been an eye opener for us."

If the National Training Center is a movie set, it's the largest in the world. It extends 1,200 square miles across the desert with 13 individual Iraqi villages. Each village can be transformed into a scene from Afghanistan as the need arises.

The newest village at the National Training Center is still under construction. When it's finished it will house up to 4,000 people. The price-tag for this village alone is $57-million dollars. But no one at the National Training Center would say how much money is spent overall preparing our troops for combat.

Command Sergeant Major Bobby Moore oversees the entire operation at the National Training Center. He said part of the reason the training is so valuable is every gun battle and exercise is videotaped from several different angles and shown to the soldiers after the fact.

"An observer-controller, a coach, will sit down with then and show them footage of what they did and they will talk about what went right and what didn't go as well as it could have and they can make improvements and they can sustain their strengths," said Moore.

The key word is "training", and rarely do the soldiers or the role players break character in the process.

Leonard Bryant is retired former Army medic. He signed up to play a soldier at the National Training Center last year. His character sustains bruises and cuts from the roadside bomb blast. He staggers around the street in shock.

"Once I had an injury where got my back blown out, it was shrapnel wound here, but my back was open, and the soldier put a dressing on my shoulder and he never checked my back. So I said, 'my back is stinging, my back is stinging' something like that. We give them hints because it's training. We want them to be the best they can be," said Bryant.

With hundreds of miles to expand and few limits to what the imagination can capture, The National Training Center is ready to be relevant no matter what combat conditions our troops may face in the future.

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