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GAMES OF LIFE, DEATH: Center prepares U.S. troops for life in Iraq

Detroit Free Press |April 25, 2005
BY JOHN MASSON

FT. POLK, La. -- The crowd swirls around Lt. Mark Torres and his radioman like a burgeoning hurricane as the 101st Airborne officer calls his superiors for backup.

The residents of Jarbar Nahr, Talatha, are spinning slowly because Torres and the radioman are themselves rotating, turning gradually clockwise to keep their faces to a crowd of increasingly restive villagers agitated over shortages of electricity, building materials and clean water in their war-ravaged village.

Not to mention this morning's firefight between Americans and insurgents, which blew up much of the town and led to the execution of two U.S. soldiers by terrorists.

"Please, back away," Torres and his troops ask the villagers through an interpreter. The word goes out again in Arabic, but it's like asking the tide not to come in.

One villager, a tall, thin man in his 20s with a bright yellow cell phone on his hip, is particularly irritating. While the other townsfolk are begging for water, he's peering into the faces of soldiers, waving blue banknotes under their noses, trying to buy the sunglasses off their faces.

The legendary Screaming Eagles, heavily armed and burdened with huge loads of combat gear from their Kevlar-helmeted heads to their combat-booted feet, are in no mood to play Sunglass Hut. They have in their hands enough firepower to turn the annoying little villager into a moist spot in the village's dusty main intersection, but instead they rebuff him politely, with hand gestures, over and over again.

Meanwhile, a soldier has gently touched one of the village women, trying to get her to back off. The intensity of the crowd's displeasure goes up several notches, a swelling crescendo of dismay that requires no translation.

At the same time, Torres' human hurricane continues its slow rotation. The villager with the banknotes continues to float from soldier to soldier, waving his money and negotiating in monosyllabic Arabic -- which the soldiers completely fail to understand -- before he finally wanders off and stands with his cell phone to his ear.

Off to one side during the exchanges stand other soldiers armed only with the Army's ubiquitous green hardcover notebooks. When the Airborne soldier touches the village woman, one of these soldiers makes a note. When the skinny villager with the sunglasses obsession puts the cell phone to his ear and starts talking, another soldier makes another note.

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A PLACE CALLED TALATHA

History : Prior to the Iraq war, the entire area was known as Cortina, and it was an island nation in the Atlantic Ocean.

Overview : Now, Talatha is a governate of the mysteriously named Host Nation, which invited U.S. troops in to help preserve order after the demise of a previous regime.

Demographics : Arab, 75 percent; Kurdish, 15 percent; Persian, Turkoman, Assyrian, other, 10 percent.

Notable settlements:

Jarbar Nahr , hard-hit by the recent fighting, is 60 percent Shi'ite Muslim and 40 percent Sunni Muslim. Its people are neutral, at best, in their dealings with U.S. troops and the new Host Nation government.

Wadi al-Tarif , 40 percent Shi'ite, 60 percent Sunni. This city was home to much of the leadership of the prior regime. The current leadership is cooperative, but the town is considered dangerous for U.S. soldiers just the same.

Suliyah , 90 percent Sunni, 8 percent Shi'ite, 2 percent Assyrian Christian. A wealthy and well-educated city that was given preferential treatment by the previous regime. Neutral toward U.S. troops; beginning to lean in favor of the new government.

Virtual war zone

Jarbar Nahr doesn't exist. It's a fictitious town in a fictitious province of Talatha whose striking resemblance to Iraq is anything but fictional.

But the training that soldiers get there before they go to Iraq is very real and could help keep them alive once they arrive.

Through Virginia-based contractor SMI, the Army hires Arabic-speaking civilians, many of them from metro Detroit, to play the role of Talathans in 18 ethnically, politically and religiously diverse villages spread across the Joint Readiness Training Center at Ft. Polk, La.

As many as 250 Arabs and Kurds play key roles in the villages, and during any given training rotation, about 50 of those key players are from metro Detroit.

They fill such roles as sheikh, imam, mayor and council member. When they're in character, most speak no English. Their clothes give clues to their status: How elaborate is the ornamentation of their dishdasha, the long, flowing robe favored by Iraqi men? How are they wearing their kaffiyeh, an Arab man's traditional checkered head covering?

Soldiers must learn to read the clues and conduct delicate negotiations through translators.

About 1,000 other role-players who don't speak Arabic -- people like 27-year-old Sonny Beeler, Jarbar Nahr's resident sunglasses fanatic -- live nearby or are U.S. soldiers temporarily assigned. In keeping with the Army's goal of realism, the local role-players know a few words of Arabic so they can function as a sort of chorus line behind the Arabic-speakers who fill the lead roles.

They dress in a wild chaos of Western and Middle Eastern fashion. Some men wear soccer shirts, some wear dishdasha. Some wear kaffiyeh, and some wear Nike baseball caps, turned backward. Some women wear the abayeh , the all-inclusive cloth wrap that covers the hair and twines around the body.

All are playing parts, mostly without a script.

"The Kurd, Sunni, Shia populations, they each have their needs and interests," said Maj. Randy Martin, a public affairs officer at the training center. "And there is a competing opposing force who ... act like insurgents or terrorists. While the local families are trying to make ends meet, the insurgents are trying to come in and convince them that the United States is all bad."

People involved in the training -- villagers, trainees, soldiers who play the part of insurgents, even civilians portraying the Talathan news media -- wear special sensor harnesses. Soldiers' regular weapons are temporarily converted to shoot blanks that trigger laser beams that act like bullets. When a laser beam hits one of the sensors on someone's harness, an annoying siren goes off and that person falls down, either wounded or dead.

And it isn't just small arms that are involved. Movie-style pyrotechnics simulate roadside bombs, rocket-propelled grenades, mortar rounds, even suicide bombers.

"It's all the real deal," said Neda Kadri of Dearborn, who plays a young woman shopkeeper in Wadi al-Tarif, another Talathan village. "This is as close to a war as anyone could possibly get, especially growing up here in America."

The notebook-toting soldiers -- known at the training center as observer controllers -- are veterans of combat in Iraq or Afghanistan who are rated at the top of their game, Martin said. More than 600 of them carefully watch the trainees' reactions to people and surroundings and take notes for later analysis.

In Jarbar Nahr, the observers noted the villager with the cell phone because the troops let him keep it -- and cell phones have frequently been used by insurgents in Iraq to trigger roadside bombs. They noted the uproar when one of the soldiers touched a female villager because the troops are taught that traditional Iraqi culture seriously frowns on men touching women who aren't their wives.

Later, the soldiers will sit down and go over their experiences in what they call an after-action review. It isn't a pass-fail type of training, said Ray Barnard, who helps run the scenarios.

"This is a classroom," Barnard said. "It's a learning process. ... This is a way to help train the soldiers to take care of business over there and not get killed in the process."

Life-or-death training

In the last few weeks, five brigade-size units -- 10,000 to 20,000 soldiers altogether -- have cycled through the Iraqi simulation. Soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), on the cusp of deploying to Iraq, were in the latest group.

The trainees, in this case based in Ft. Campbell, Ky., arrive with all their vehicles and equipment and set up shop in the Box, as the training area at Ft. Polk is known. They'll live in the field for roughly 10 days, although the exercises usually last about seven.

During that time, a few scripted events take place -- a roadside bomb will be scheduled to go off at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday in the Sunni village of Wahadi al Basha, for example. But what happens after a scripted event depends almost entirely on how villagers and soldiers on the ground -- those, that is, who survive the attack -- choose to react.

The randomness of the training keeps organizers and role-players jumping.

"You fight the way you would fight over there," said Cpl. Colin Gumm, who grew up in Royal Oak, Troy and Fraser and who has trained at the training center several times. "This time, it's more realistic. These role-players are really good, because a lot of them are from Iraq."

Higher up the military food chain, the sentiment is the same.

"I think it's tremendously effective, I really do," said Col. Will Harrison, commanding officer of the 159th Aviation Brigade. "These young soldiers really have to deal with the tensions of these situations."

Their commanders do, too. Harrison had just completed a mock news conference with the Talathan media, conducted under the keen eyes of senior observer controllers who carried their own green notebooks.

Although the training is realistic enough that it doesn't require much imagination, a little bit certainly helps, Harrison added.

"What you put into it is what you get out of it," he said. "The biggest thing they get out of it is that even relatively simple tasks are complicated in the combat environment. That, and you can't make assumptions. You have to be prepared. Once they get that lesson, then they have great confidence."

It's that confidence, and the other lessons soldiers learn there, that can save lives when the enemy is pointing more at you than just lasers.

John Beckwith III, an Army veteran who now helps manage the training center's public affairs program, puts it another way:

During one session, he ran into a soldier who was so drained by a mock battle that he sat by himself afterward, trembling. Beckwith told the soldier he understood how intense the training is, but also reminded the man how valuable the knowledge he was gaining would be in Iraq.

"Do me a favor," Beckwith told him. "Take this with you over there."

 

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