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Role Players Provide Key Training Lessons

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

FORT POLK, La., May 28, 2010 – Enter the tiny, fictional village of West Sangan on this sprawling training base and you’ll encounter a world about as far removed from western Louisiana as one can imagine.

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Veronica Wilson, left, team leader for West Sangan’s civilian role players, and role player “Big John” Cummings recognize that the realism they bring to scenarios at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La., can save soldiers’ lives. DoD photo by Donna Miles

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The village, one of 22 dotting the Joint Readiness Training Center, looks as if it’s been plucked like Dorothy’s house in “The Wizard of Oz” from one of the most isolated regions of Afghanistan and transplanted deep within a Louisiana pine forest.

Its plywood structures have been “Hollywoodized,” embellished with Styrofoam facings to resemble authentic-looking mosques, homes, food markets and shops. Goats roam freely, some curling beneath fruit and vegetable carts to seek shelter from the hot sun. Clothing hangs from the windows as if set out to dry, and residents dressed in authentic Afghan garb sit together at tables and in doorways, chatting away the hours.

These residents -- portrayed by civilian role players, many from the Middle East – serve as the single most important training feature the Joint Readiness Training Center offers units preparing for deployments to Afghanistan.

The role players represent the people behind the population-centric U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. They’re the Afghan citizens who must reject the Taliban and al-Qaida and embrace the Afghan government and its security forces for that strategy to succeed.

So as units encounter these villages during their training rotations here, a huge teaching point is on the line.

West Sagan is “amber,” explained Veronica Wilson, team leader for the village’s role players. That means its population is neither “red,” with allegiances to the insurgency, nor “green,” supporting the Afghan government, and by extension, the coalition.

So when U.S. troops enter the village, operating in ways they hope will turn the village fence-sitters in their favor, Wilson and her co-workers do their best to remain in character and maintain a hard line.

“We will accept anything they are telling us and anything they will give us,” she said. “We just won’t give them any information in return.”

Some of the role players, like Darrell Thrasher, serve as Afghan security forces and join the rotational training units in combined operations. Wearing the blue uniform of an Afghan National Police officer with the Afghan flag patch on his sleeve, he explained the big changes over the past five years in how rotational training units interact with host-nation security forces.

“There’s been a huge transformation of tactics,” Thrasher said. “At the beginning, they would have full-on engagement with the enemy with no local interaction. … But that has all changed. It’s gone from the [rotational training unit] acting on its own to one that recognizes the importance of working with the population.”

Many of the training center’s role-players were born and raised in the Middle East and bring important cultural and language lessons to the training scenarios. Aziz Shoja, who left his native Afghanistan 28 years ago, now serves as a tribal elder here. Abdul Resuli, who arrived in the United States from Afghanistan just last year, plays a religious leader.

As he witnesses realistic training designed to prepare troops for Afghanistan deployments, Shoja takes advantage of every opportunity to impart some of the cultural knowledge that will help their cause.

“We try to teach them everything we can about our country, from A to Z,” he said. “This is an important part of the training they get here. And it can save not just their lives, but Afghan lives, too.”

James “Fuzzy” Hall, a role player in West Sangan’s butcher shop, tries to interject some lessons, too. Hall paid his first visit to Fort Polk to attend Army basic training in 1963 before being stationed in Korea, then deploying to Vietnam. He remembers sadly how many of his buddies returned from Vietnam in body bags, and said he’s back at Fort Polk almost 50 years later because he wants to save today’s troops from the same fate.

“In Vietnam, we didn’t win the hearts and minds of the people, because we didn’t learn to show them respect,” he said. “If we had had training like this back then, many of the ones who were killed would have come home.”

Although Hall is supposed to be a fence-sitter in his training role, he admitted he sometimes breaks out of character to tip off soldiers when he notices them doing something amiss. If, for example, he notices a medic’s weapon dragging in the dirt while attending to his simulated injuries, he’ll whisper to the soldier to clean his weapon.

“It’s so hard when you see them making mistakes that could get them killed,” he said. “The way I see it, if I have helped save one soldier’s life, I have done my duty.”

Across the board, a sense of duty drives the role players here as they pull long hours in often-uninviting conditions to give deploying troops a jump on what they’ll encounter in Afghanistan.

Wilson, wife of a retired soldier who deployed to the first Gulf War, understands what the importance of the lessons troops learn here. “When they leave us, they are going to be deployed,” she said. “So we do everything we can to help bring someone’s husband or son or daughter home.

“You can always be rekeyed here,” she continued, referring to the laser gear soldiers wear here that simulates when they’ve been hit by enemy fire. “You can’t be rekeyed over there, when it’s real.”

John Cummings, known around West Sangan as “Big John,” gets up at 2 every morning to drive to Fort Polk. He’s been a role player here since January, often incorporating his real-life leg amputation into an exercise scenario.

“All of us feel that the reward for doing this work is the training that we are giving these people,” he said. “We’re so proud to be doing this, knowing that what we do here is helping keep them out of harm’s way when they’re overseas.”

(This is the last article in a five-part series about how the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La., is preparing the 101st Airborne Division’s 4th Brigade Combat Team for its upcoming deployment to Afghanistan.)


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Related Sites:
Joint Readiness Training Center
101st Airborne Division
4th Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageAbdul Resuli, left, and Aziz Shoja, both natives of Afghanistan, serve as cultural role players who teach rotational training units at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La., about Afghan culture and practices. DoD photo by Donna Miles  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageJames “Fuzzy” Hall, left, and Shelda Burrow, role players at West Sangan’s butcher shop at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La., say they feel a strong sense of duty as they help to train troops for upcoming deployments to Afghanistan. DoD photo by Donna Miles  
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Click photo for screen-resolution image“Hollywoodized” structures and props transform the pine forests of the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La., into Afghan villages, complete with role players who provide important cultural training for deploying troops. DoD photo by Donna Miles  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageDarrell Thrasher, left, and his fellow role players who serve as Afghan security forces help rotational training units at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La., learn to conduct combined operations that increasingly put the Afghans in the security lead. DoD photo by Donna Miles  
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