Roles of Engagement

May 6, 2009 1:48:03 AM PDT
Before our troops go to Iraq or Afghanistan they enter a realistic Middle Eastern world, just hours from the Central Valley.There are thousands of Iraqi Nationals in this country. Many arrived on American soil before the war. Many are Christian who feared being murdered for their faith. Some of those men and women have dedicated themselves to helping train American soldiers for war.

As the sun rises over the desert an Iraqi village comes alive ... shopkeepers pull out their wares ... the smells of barbequing chicken and beef waft through the air and the daily business of training U.S. soldiers begins.

The National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California is about 35 miles northeast of Barstow in the Mojave Desert. Medina Wasl is one of 13 Iraqi villages spread out over 12 hundred square miles. The buildings are made from shipping containers covered with realistic looking facades. 700 people are hired to play the roles of townspeople, shopkeepers and Iraqi Police.

Even though this is just a training facility, there are people who actually live here 24/7. 26 Iraqi Nationals live in Medina Wasl and 250 total who live in the various villages around the National Training Center.

Hannah an Iraqi National said, "I love doing this! I've been doing this for four years ... I've gotten used to it. I've got too many soldiers like brothers to me. We've gotten to know them very well."

"Hannah" is an Iraqi Christian. He fled to the United States before the Iraq war after living in fear of being murdered by Saddam Hussein's Regime. He wanted to join the Marines ... but decided helping train soldiers was the best way to serve his new country

Hannah said, "When I got here in the U.S., they support me ... they give me freedom ... I mean they didn't like turn their back on me."

Hannah and his fellow Iraqi Nationals share small spaces. They use small hot plates to cook meals and make their signature "Chai" tea. But they have a few creature comforts like satellite TV and video games. They have electricity ... but no running water. As a role player, "Hannah" is the town's deputy chief of police. Every day he's transported to his days in Iraq.

Alu Banarji was living in San Diego five years ago when she heard about an opportunity at the National Training Center.

Alu Banarji said, "My mom called me and said, 'Alu, we heard about this job where you go out there and act like an Iraqi. You put on your traditionals and you go out there and you scream and yell. And it pays good!' And I said, 'well come on!'"

Alu and her family were also forced to flee Iraq because of their Christian beliefs.

"My dad was vice president of a company in Iraq and Saddam's Regime decided to hold him hostage. So we had to get out of there before he was executed. The Americans actually helped him get out so we are indebted to the Americans for helping us," said Banarji.

These days Alu is Vice President of Global Tactical Training ... she role plays occasionally ... but mostly helps recruit other Iraqi Nationals. She also teaches cultural awareness to American soldiers. She explains the do's and don'ts of interacting with Iraqi men and women, including how to conduct a search of an Iraqi woman without touching her. Alu and Hannah both agree there's no place else they'd rather be ... Nothing else they'd rather be doing.

"We're all one blood. We bleed the same blood. It's not about Iraqi or American ... we're all one and they're still human lives. We have to save them on both sides ... not just one side," said Banarji.

I only spent two days at the National Training Center and granted ... it was just two days of combat situations that I watched ... but I have a much greater appreciation for our men and women in uniform as a result. They are extremely good at what they do ... and terribly loyal to their country ... and I'm grateful.

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