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CAMP SHELBY, Miss. – As they passed through the gates at Camp Shelby in January, the soldiers of Arkansas’ 39th Infantry Brigade combat team were immediately reminded they were headed for Iraq.
The first set of barracks, row after row of long buildings made of simple gray cinderblock, was surrounded by concertina wire with the only access point controlled by a guard shack. The sign declared this base Camp Victory, which is just one of the places the 39th’s Bowie Brigade will call home for the next year as part of their mobilization in Iraq.
This sense of realism—commonly referred to as theater immersion training—places the Bowie Brigade in an environment similar to Iraq or Afghanistan. While at Camp Shelby, these soldiers live in forward operating bases, interact with real Iraqis, patrol and work in villages or towns built based on what they will see in theater. They will do all this with the fog of war surrounding them as they train—which impresses even the combat veterans of the group.
“It’s very realistic training, and at the same time, it gives the ‘Joe’ a good sense of how your mind works in combat with so many actions taking place at one time,” said Matthew Dedman of Sherwood, a combat veteran from the previous deployment.
“It’s very real training, and we’ll benefit greatly from it.
“For the most part, the trainers here are very knowledgeable, yet receptive of our prior experiences. Instead of, ‘listen to this, do it this way’ they listen to suggestions, comments,” said Dedman.
“This is some of the most realistic training I’ve ever seen in the Army,” said Master Sgt. Phillip Powers, observer controller and combat veteran. “The training is up-to-date with what is happening in Iraq today and it changes constantly in order to keep pace with Iraq,” Powers said. “These soldiers will leave here fully prepared to do their mission, do it well and come home safe.”
A TASTE OF REALISM
In many ways, Camp Shelby is a small taste of Hollywood, and when the cameras are rolling it’s hard to tell the difference between what’s real and what’s not real.
One after another, a seemingly endless line of soldiers appear out of the cloud of white smoke and engulf the objective — a two-story building in Al Jaffar, Iraq. They do so hurriedly while dodging bullets from a well-hidden, and well-aimed, sniper approximately 200 meters away. Unfortunately, all the bullets don’t get “dodged” and a couple soldiers go down.
“He’s been hit, he’s been hit! We’ve gotta get him outta there now! Cover me!” shouts a fellow soldier while racing to help his peer under a barrage of gunfire from his team providing protection for the rescue.
The soldier moves quickly and drags one of the wounded across the gravel by the nape of his collar to safety. He calls for a medic as small arms fire can be heard from seemingly every direction. In another heroic act, a second soldier is pulled to safety behind an armored humvee, now safe from the onslaught of bullets. Two explosions just outside the compound only add to the confusion as the Iraqi citizens inside begin to scream in fear. Their inability to fully comprehend the soldier’s language only makes them shout even louder in their native tongue — Arabic.
More smoke, more confusion, more yelling; yet, the soldiers, continue with their mission driven by adrenaline despite even more casualties — both American and Iraqi — inside the building they’ve just occupied.
This training will provide them the intuition they need to be successful.
Amidst the chaos, soldiers are seen making split-second decisions — some good, some bad. Nonetheless, they continue the fight without hesitation. Once the compound is secure, the soldiers thoroughly begin searching the Iraqi citizens — women search women, men search men. Every movement is cautious, every search is thorough and each step in the process is taken with the aid of an interpreter, just another of many obstacles the American soldier must overcome.
“Don’t move! I said don’t move!” shouts a young sergeant as he firsts tries to communicate with the Iraqi and then quickly realizes he needs the aide of the interpreter. “Tell him I said to be still! I don’t want him to move until I tell him he can.”
One after another, the occupants of the compound are methodically searched for weapons. Finally, the soldiers find the target of their search — a wanted terrorist. It’s time to move out.
The area is filled with more gunfire as those guarding the perimeter fire back. Now, a soldier lobs a smoke grenade to prepare for the departure. It’s now time to move the Iraqis, friend and foe, out of the compound and away to safety. A quick shout into a radio, and the race is on to safety through a thick cloud of billowing smoke similar to that in which they entered this make-believe combat zone. More gunfire, more split-second decisions and more Soldiers wounded. It all takes place in a matter of seconds with the final scene being a soldier being dragged to safety.
And just as a producer would stand and shout, “Cut!” the observer controller calls an end to the exercise, “Index, index, index!” The action ends, and now, the real learning begins.
Soldiers go in one direction and the civilian role players go the other once timeout, or index, is called. The troops gather around their trainers to discuss what went well and what went not so well — commonly referred to as a “hotwash.” During these sessions, soldiers learn from mistakes by discussing them within the group.
The learning environment is as intense as the real-world action itself with the sound of gunfire, smell of smoke, loud Arabic chants or screams and the blood-pumping excitement that is consistent in theater-immersion training. It’s this realism that the 39th Brigade soldiers seem to appreciate most as they near the end of their training here.
Training at Camp Shelby is based on the same model which made the Arkansas leadership so confident it could teach its own soldiers from October to January in “our own backyard” in preparation for the mission in Iraq — combat veterans. Combat veterans serve as an enabler for the “train-as-you-fight” mentality. The experience of the staff here, along with the realistic training environment help interject another level of realism into the training.
As combat veterans, these observer controllers are confident in their teachings as the training is anything but stagnant — it changes as the enemy changes. The situations, scenarios and threats are constantly evolving and match what is occurring in theater. In addition to experience ‘fighting the fight,’ these combat veterans actually accompany deploying leaders on recons to the theater before their training at Camp Shelby ever begins. This allows them the opportunity to fine-tune or adjust their training as necessary.
ON THE BATTLEFIELD
As in the real-world, Iraqi citizens are often in the line of site on the linear battlefield that soldiers face in Iraq. This is the reason such emphasis is placed on interacting with civilian role players in the training.
Bottom line, all Iraqi people are not our enemy. And, in many cases, combat veterans can often be overheard telling younger troops to stop and listen to the Iraqi people—a point the instructors are strongly emphasizing.
The role players serving as Iraqi citizens are made up of college students, local citizens of surrounding communities as well as some Iraqi citizens.
In most cases, the Iraqis still have families living in Iraq and don’t like to be photographed. They fear the photos might end up in the media and their families put at risk.
“I am supporting my family in Iraq,” said one of the Iraqis who requested anonymity. “By helping American soldiers, I help my family in Iraq. We make this real for their training. And I like to help the soldiers get ready for what it is like in my country. We want to help the American soldier, because they are helping Iraq to be a better place.”
And as actors on a set, these role players serve in a multitude of roles, from angry citizens to those trying to point out the location of a recently planted improvised explosive device.
A primary role that is benefiting the soldier is that of interpreter since communication is a major obstacle on the battlefield. During the training scenarios, interpreters assist in the communications process.
Nonetheless, soldiers are still required to participate in language skills training in order to learn some basic Arabic words and phrases.
Almost two months into its collective training, the 39th Brigade continues to march toward its objective — Iraq.
The Bowie Brigade will continue its realistic training scenarios through mid-March, when it flies to Iraq.
But the real test is the Army training evaluation program, which determines if the brigade is prepared to go to combat.
Each of the five battalions—1/206th Field Artillery, 1/153rd Infantry, 2/153rd Infantry, 217th Brigade Support Battalion and 1/151 Calvary — as well as the Brigade Headquarters element will participate in the evaluation before leaving Camp Shelby.