Alpha Company seemed to be doing everything right. After a soldier in a nearby unit got wounded by a mortar attack, the platoon entered the city of Medina Jabal in textbook fashion. The soldiers went to the chief of police and asked him to accompany them on a search for the insurgents. Working through a translator, they respectfully interviewed the locals. After spying two villagers trying to hide a rifle, the soldiers gave chase in the 110F heat. They captured the men and brought them in for questioning. Soon after, things took a deadly turn.
An improvised explosive device (IED) hidden in the street exploded, killing two Alpha Company soldiers and three of their Iraqi Army colleagues. The Americans quickly established a security perimeter and called for a truck to evacuate bodies. But before it arrived a car bomb went off, killing two more U.S. soldiers. "They failed to put a distance between them and the IED," said Sergeant First Class John Placentia, noting that insurgents often set off several explosions in a row to kill people who respond to the first one. "This platoon is now combat-ineffective. The enemy was successful." Fortunately for all involved, it was only a training exercise.
If war is the ultimate competition -- a life-or-death struggle on a bloody proving ground -- then Fort Irwin, Calif., is the last scrimmage before the big game. The U.S. Army National Training Center is located 150 miles northeast of Los Angeles on a 1,000-square-mile stretch of desert next to Death Valley. Roughly 50,000 soldiers a year are run through the facility. Each month a new, incoming Blue Team faces off against battled-hardened Red Team trainers. The fighting isn't real, but the stakes are high. Most of the Blue Team soldiers will be deployed to Iraq within months of their visit. And as they like to say in the Army: "You fight as you train."
AVOIDING FATAL MISTAKES
As important as it is to the Army, Fort Irwin also provides a lesson for any institution trying to cope with change in a volatile environment. Its message: Create your own competition, test yourself, and find your weak spots before rivals do it for you. In the late 1990s, Jack Welch had a program at General Electric Co. (GE) called "Destroy Your Business," where division heads dispatched teams of mock rivals to attack business units. GE no longer engages in the exercise, but there are some who think every business should. "This is required to get folks' heads in the right place," says Robert E. Mittelstaedt Jr., dean of Arizona State University's business school and author of Will Your Next Mistake Be Fatal? Avoiding the Chain of Mistakes that Can Destroy Your Organization. "It brings out very different ways of thinking and helps [you] realize where you are vulnerable and where you may not be," he says.
Fort Irwin first opened as a training ground for Cold War-era tank battles in 1981. As the insurgency heated up in Iraq, the Army shifted its focus to guerrilla war. The Red Team consists of 1,600 U.S. soldiers and civilians who live for three-week stretches in 12 villages designed to look like Iraqi communities. About 250 team members are Iraqi-Americans such as Sam Kalasho, a 50-year-old liquor store owner from San Diego. Like most members of the Red Team, he's happy to play the heavy if it's for a greater good. "I see what we are doing making a big difference," he says. "It could save the life of a soldier or civilian in Iraq."
The Army spends an extraordinary amount of money and time on authenticity. The Red Team cooks real Iraqi meals in the villages. Loudspeakers on mosques call them to prayer five times a day. There's a soccer league in which villages compete against each other. And as in the real Iraq, there are U.S. contractors. L3 Communications Corp. (LLL) supervises the Arabic-speaking civilians. Raytheon Co. (RTN) provides the vehicles used by insurgents.
The preparation begins some six months before a unit is due at the fort. The commander of the brigade to be tested gives trainers an assessment of his unit's strengths and weaknesses. About 200 trainers known as Lizards devise elaborate scenarios. Villagers get fictitious jobs, families, and religious affiliations. Story lines are written, clues set, and attacks planned down to which Red Team members serve as financiers, bombmakers, and trigger men.
The Blue Team arrives at Fort Irwin much as it will in Iraq. A staging area serves as a sort of mini-Kuwait, where reconnaissance units assess the terrain inside the "box." Then it's out to the field, where the Blue Team builds bases surrounded by concertina wire, seven-foot-high berms, machine gun nests, and serpentine access roads. Overhead, reconnaissance drones keep watch on enemy movements. Convoys, constant targets themselves, supply the bases.
Soldiers fire blanks, of course. Team members wear harnesses with sensors that register when they've been hit, a sort of heavy-duty version of laser tag. When an explosive device goes off, an impartial observer with a "God gun" eyeballs the radius of the explosion and zaps those impacted.
"LIKE NOTHING HAPPENED"
A big part of the training process involves punishing the Blue Team for mistakes. When members of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Div. came to cordon off the mock village of Medina Wasl at the exact same time they had the previous night, an insurgent was able to slip out with a mortar just minutes before their arrival. The insurgent, played by Staff Sergeant Melvin Thomas, spent the whole night out in the field. He attacked a Blue Team base at 10 p.m., hid, and then slipped back into his village at 5 a.m. With a smile on his face, he happily recounted the mayhem inflicted -- 10 vehicles damaged, one destroyed, 10 soldiers hurt.
Thomas, a 26-year-old from Dayton, is, like most members of the Red Team, an Iraq War veteran. He suffered through seven IED attacks without serious injury. "I never saw the enemy," he said. "They'd come out at night and plant bombs. They'd run in a house where there would be women, children, other men. They'd change clothes and walk around like nothing happened."
Trainers at Fort Irwin put stress on soldiers every chance they get. During a search of Iraqi homes, Golf Company found a man with a rifle. Brought outside in handcuffs, the man pleaded to be given over to the Iraqi Police standing nearby. "I.P., I.P.," he said as a crowd of villagers gathered in the stifling heat. A translator said the man only used the rifle for hunting, but after radioing his superiors, Specialist Drake Hill informed the police that the man would be taken back to a Blue Team base for questioning. That was the right decision. "If you go to the gym and just do what you can do, you don't improve," explains Lieutenant Colonel James Miller, deputy commander of operations at Fort Irwin. "This is mental muscle building."
The Blue Team follows each mission with what the Army calls an After-Action Review. Many of them take place with maps on the hood of a Humvee. The reviews are freewheeling affairs where every soldier is encouraged to speak up and give an assessment of what went wrong and what could be done better.
The trainers try to stay one step ahead, often incorporating real experiences from the front lines. As sectarian violence has increased in Iraq, so has the presence of mock death squads and assassinations at Fort Irwin. Soldiers who stray from their unit are theoretically kidnapped and executed. Capturing the hearts and minds of the Iraqis -- what the Army calls "nonkinetic" operations -- has become a top priority.
There are two fake TV networks operating at the training center, one resembling CNN, the other Al Jazeera. On Day 11 of a recent tour, the Blue Team's Major Chris Wendland was monitoring local broadcasts when he saw an interview with the mayor of Medina Wasl. The mayor complained about how soldiers were treating villagers. Then one of Wendland's officers appeared on screen saying that he and the mayor had a great relationship. The Americans seemed out of touch.
Sensing a public-relations disaster, Wendland's team discussed what to do. He dispatched the officer, Captain Steve Poe, to meet with the mayor. After a two-hour negotiation that involved reparations for a villager shot at a roadblock, Poe and the mayor posed for a photo, which was immediately distributed to the news media. "This is important," Wendland said later at base camp. "This is the fight we're fighting."
By Christopher Palmeri