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Training today's soldiers at JRTC: Joint Readiness Training Center.

WITH the sound of gunfire and explosions in the distance mingling with the call to prayer from a nearby "mosque," the sight of people in gallabiyahs and burkahs mingling with Soldiers in full battle rattle, and the smell of goat meat being grilled on a spit mingling with the smell of cordite and dust, you could be forgiven for thinking that you are in a village in Iraq.

But this is not Iraq, this is not even a foreign country. This is the daily scene in the backwoods of the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La.

"Here at JRTC attention to detail has always been the cornerstone of training," said CSM Thomas R. Woodhams of JRTC's operations group. He said that even before the global war on terrorism started, when the emphasis was more on conventional warfare than on safety and security operations, the scenarios were always carefully created. The villages and towns have always had the feel of the countries American forces were fighting in.

"Since about December 2002 more of JRTC's focus has been on Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom missions, with tasks that include combat patrol, meetings with village dignitaries to discuss security concerns, opening clinics and schools, convoy security, cordons and searches, and raids," Woodhams said. JRTC now has 18 towns and villages with about 11,000 buildings and urban sprawl created to look like parts of Iraq and Afghanistan, he added.

All the villages have role players performing such parts as mayors, police chiefs, newspaper and television reporters, cafe owners and even goat herders. One of the role players, Iraqi Hassan Kareem, said he heard of this job from a friend and jumped at the thought of playing a part in helping both the country of his birth and his country of residence.

"I feel that by me being here I can help the American Soldiers better understand the Iraqi people and culture," Kareem said. "If misunderstanding of each other is minimized, it will help save the lives of the Soldiers and the Iraqi people."

Woodhams said that there are about 1,200 role players. They work shifts, so that the training can continue uninterrupted day and night.

"A lot of work goes into making the villages and situations seem as real as possible," he said.

English is not spoken by the role players, unless required. The villages are even situated by religious divides to replicate the Sunni Triangle and Kurdish settlements in Iraq. Hollywood-created pyrotechnics simulate real battlefield environments, with wire-controlled rocket-propelled grenades and convincing improvised explosive devices as part of the role-players' arsenal.

Role players who use ingenious ways to make the training more challenging further enhance the reality.

"In one scenario a Vietnam-veteran amputee uses his disability to simulate his legs being blown off, requiring the Soldiers to react to the situation," Woodhams said.

1SG Carl Ashmead of Headquarters and HQs. Company, 2nd Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment, from Fort Drum, N.Y., is an OEF veteran and has a few JRTC rotations under his belt. He was impressed with the changes to training based on lessons learned in-theater.

"Before, we had a templated threat, maneuvering in a conventional battlefield," he said. "Now we are in a communications war, to win over the people, as much as actual combat operations."

At JRTC the use of Arabic-speaking role players helps Soldiers under stand the complexity of communicating in environments such as Iraq. The Soldiers learn basic Arabic words that can replace gestures which may have been misunderstood. For instance, the use of the left hand to signal "stop" is considered disrespectful in the Middle East, and can be replaced with words. The varied scenarios in the different villages also give Soldiers a sense of what can occur in-theater, thus making them better prepared to react to situations, Ashmead said.

All the scenarios and teaching points are managed by a group of observer-controllers who evaluate down to the squad level.

"The OCs don't practice a fall-on-your-face and be shamed technique. Instead, they coach, teach and mentor throughout the process, serve as mission command and control during the planning and execution, are responsible for the safety issues and hold after-action reviews at the completion of each scenario-based or random-occurrence exercise," Woodhams said.

The OCs also conduct an AAR each evening with the commanding general of the rotational force. OCs are trained on lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan by recon teams who go to theater, and by all-source readings and joint lessons-learned conferences, Woodhams said.

No training scenario would be complete without the opposing force. At JRTC the OPFOR is made up of Soldiers from the 509th Infantry Regiment. The OPFOR is designed along the same lines as that of the insurgency in Iraq. Soldiers play the roles of former Iraqi regime military officers, Saddam loyalists, and such foreign terrorists as al Qaeda and the Mujahadeen.

SGT Erech Zych of Company D, 1 st Bn., 509th Inf., is in charge of a five-man insurgent cell.

"Our mission before the current war on terrorism was geared toward combat operations. We lived in the woods and fought the rotational forces on a conventional battlefield. Now we live in the towns, adopt a civilian way of life, mix with the troops, win their trust, learn their weaknesses and then attack," Zych said.

As with the insurgents in Iraq, the OPFOR troops don't follow any guidelines or rules; they base their attacks on what the rotational forces allow.

"Once we planned a fake wedding and invited the rotational forces, and while they were enjoying the festivities we 'killed' their commander," Zych said.

This kind of training ensures Soldiers stay alert at all times and remain aware that the least threatening of situations might be the most dangerous, he said.

The training culminates in a live-fire exercise. The units are put through a convoy or foot-patrol scenario, during which all assets available to a commander are used. Special forces units and Air Force, Marine and Army helicopters take part in many of the scenarios. IEDs, RPGs, suicide bombers, cardboard-cutout insurgents and civilians on the battlefield are carefully planted in scenes that would make even the best Hollywood director envious.

"The tempo is very quick and very similar to what we faced in Afghanistan," said SGT Matthew Scott Primrose, of HHC, 2nd Bn., 22nd Inf. "You have to think and react fast before you engage, because not all the targets that pop up are hostile."

The training at JRTC is constantly refined to reflect current situations in theater, and thus allows for up-to-date training for the troops ready to deploy, Woodhams said.

The beeping sound of Soldiers' Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement Systems going oft', simulating kills, the smell of moth balls indicating a recent explosion, the sight of Soldiers in bandages with fake blood oozing from wounds aren't just scenes from a long hectic day at JRTC. They're lessons learned that might one day make the difference between life and death in a hostile land.

SFC Antony Joseph, a former Soldiers staffer, is a public affairs NCOIC at Fort Campbell, Ky.
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Author:Joseph, Antony
Publication:Soldiers Magazine
Geographic Code:1U7LA
Date:Sep 1, 2005
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