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Camp Totally Immerses Deploying Guard, Reserve Troops

By Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA
American Forces Press Service

CAMP SHELBY, Miss., May 6, 2005 – They push and shove against the soldiers who form a human barricade. They call them names and try their patience.

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Reserve soldiers at the Joint Mobilization Training Center, Camp Shelby, Miss., try to calm an angry crowd of villagers played by Iraqi-Americans. The training is part of the soldiers' situational awareness instruction prior to deployment overseas. Photo by Maj. Art Sharpe, USA

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As the crowd gets larger, their voices grow stronger. As the soldiers beg for calm, the angry crowd grows out of control.

Moments later, more chaos erupts. A homemade bomb detonates near a mosque. Wounded and dead Iraqis, all innocent, lie everywhere, another tense situation to which the soldiers must respond.

For soldiers deployed to Iraq, it's just another day in theater. But this is Camp Shelby, Miss.

The rioting crowd and the explosions are all part of the training that thousands of Guard and Reserve soldiers receive at the Joint Mobilization Center here before they deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Sometimes there is the look of absolute fear in these young soldiers' eyes," said Army Maj. Art Sharpe, public affairs officer for the 3rd Brigade, 87th Division. "There is a concerned look, not for their safety, but because sometimes you're facing down a line of 80 to 150 screaming villagers, and it creates quite a bit a tension."

It is a dose of reality that leaders here call "theater immersion." It shows soldiers at point-blank range what to expect when they get in country.

Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honore, 1st Army commander, and Army Col. Daniel L. Zajac, in charge of training support, developed the concept of placing soldiers, leaders and units into an environment that approximates what they will encounter in combat.

As 1st Army commander, Honore oversees training, mobilization and deployment of Reserve and Guard units in the eastern United States, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Zajac is in charge of training at Camp Shelby.

"When soldiers get off the bus at the mobilization station, they must feel they have arrived in Iraq or Afghanistan," Honore wrote in an article for the Army's Combined Arms Center publication, "Military Review."

The mock Iraqi village here was built solely for this purpose. It's a bit different from the ordinary MOUT -- military operations in urban terrain - training facility in that for anyone who has ever visited Iraq, it looks quite real, soldiers said.

There is a mosque, a post-Saddam Hussein voter registration office, a police station, markets, walled residences, traffic circles and tunnels. The telephone and electric cables hang low.

The towns are even given names of places in Iraq, such as Al Jaffah and Al Keim.

People hired to put on the demonstrations, including 80 or so Iraqi-Americans, are paid $12 to $20 an hour. Speaking only in their native language, the Iraqis serve as linguists and play the roles of village mayors, police chiefs, religious leaders, terrorists and news reporters. They also conduct joint U.S. patrols as Iraqi National Guardsmen and border police.

But the realism really takes hold with the first bomb explosion.

As in Iraq, improvised explosive device attacks at Camp Shelby, though simulated, can come at any time, as trainers here have made IED detection and deterrence an integral part of the training.

Army Col. Damon Penn, commander of the 4th Brigade, 85th Division, who recently completed training Army Reserve soldiers from Pennsylvania for their deployment, said soldiers are taught early on about the IED threat.

He said to ensure soldiers understand the threat, they are attacked often during training. He noted that when soldiers first arrive to mobilize, they are exposed to a simulated IED attack.

"They don't know how to respond at that particular time," he pointed out. "But we make it a point to tell them that IEDs are the No. 1 killer on the battlefield, and while they are here we will work with them every day, train them every day, and they will have an event every day to help them prepare for what they're going to face on the battlefield."

As part of their training, soldiers are put in a forward operating base much like the one they will operate out of in theater. "They are exposed to enemy activity as well as IEDs 24 hours a day," Penn said.

"The IED threat in Iraq is ubiquitous," Zajac noted, "and as part of the training here the threat needs to be ubiquitous so that the soldiers gain situational understanding and situational awareness of the threat."

Considerable attention is given to how to avoid an IED attack on a convoy. Soldiers receive five days of ground-assault convoy training aimed at helping them survive an ambush or IED attack, said Lt. Col. William Wolfarth, the course instructor.

Tasked with delivering relief supplies, convoys are taken out on a local four-lane highway as in Iraq. Upon returning to the camp's training area, they soldiers are hit with ambushes and IEDs. "Each convoy encounters at least eight IEDs or vehicle IEDs," Wolfarth explained.

During this training, he said, soldiers will fire some 200 rounds of M-16 ammunition at insurgent targets. Crew-served weapons, such as .50-caliber machine guns, will fire 400 to 500 rounds, he said.

The soldiers, who spend three to five months here training, say they have benefited from the "theater immersion" technique.

"We did a lot of training on IEDs, and we learned a lot, which was good because they are the No. 1 killer," said Pfc. Stephen Buxton, 19, B Troop, 1st Battalion, 104th Cavalry Regiment.

And with his unit pulling out any day, Buxton explained, the training gave him a clear understanding of going to Iraq "to help bring peace." And, he added, "Now I have an idea of what to expect when I get there."

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageArmy Pfc. Juan Ortiz, a squad machine gunner with the 597th Quartermaster Company, Puerto Rico, looks satisfied at the end of a day of gunning down pop-up targets on the convoy-assault training course at Camp Shelby, Miss. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageSoldiers with the 597th Quartermaster Company, Puerto Rico, pose during break in their convoy-assault training at Camp Shelby, Miss., in preparation for deployment to Iraq. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageDuring training at Camp Shelby, Miss., Reserve soldiers take cover behind a damaged Iraqi Police vehicle after an improvised explosive device attack. The training takes place in a model of an actual Iraqi village. Photo by Maj. Art Sharpe, USA  
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