The U.S. Army is using a new training concept as it prepares troops to go to Iraq and Afghanistan. It is called 'Theater Immersion,' and it is designed to give the soldiers a series of experiences that mirror, as closely as possible, what they will face on the battlefield. The effort is headquartered at Camp Shelby in the southern state of Mississippi.
Army trainer and Iraq veteran Sergeant First Class Dwayne Winstead huddles with visitors in a Humvee. "We are going to go on a simulated convoy route," he explains. "They will encounter different insurgents, ambushes. They'll have to take appropriate actions, return fire, and basically make it to the end of the convoy safely."
Nearby, several more of the military vehicles are gathered with National Guard soldiers from Wisconsin inside. In a few weeks, they will deploy to Iraq.
On this day, they get their orders and move out along a dirt road. But before long they stop abruptly near what the military calls an IED, an improvised explosive device, the most deadly weapon used by insurgents in Iraq.
"Right now what they are doing is, the front vehicle has spotted an IED, which is what we simulate, a pile of rocks or a disturbance in the road, and it is up around the bend up there," explains Sgt. Winstead. "We have actually got two piles, one on each side. They like to set two. So right now what they are doing is they are calling in the reports to higher elements."
They get their answer - take a different route around the suspected bomb and take up a position on higher ground to secure the area and wait for the bomb disposal squad. But at that higher position, they are exposed to enemy fire.
The soldiers respond, lying on the ground and firing real bullets at insurgent targets and vehicles made of wood that pop up just across a small valley. Automated devices fire blanks back at them.
When the trainers conclude that the soldiers have defeated the enemy, they move on. At their next position, the same thing happens. This time, they fire until they are out of bullets and the exercise ends.
The idea is to put the soldiers through such experiences as many times as possible, so they know how to react and stay alive. "A lot of them do not understand what the elements are out in Iraq," says Sgt. Winstead. "It is the whole concept actually getting in a convoy, staying together, and actually searching around and looking for things out of the ordinary."
Everyone has a job to do, including constantly scanning the area and maintaining communications with the other vehicles in the convoy, and their headquarters.
Later, at an 'After Action Review,' they are greeted by another trainer, Sergeant Chad Williams. "All right, what did we have to make corrections on?" he asks.
The trainers are constantly seeking to identify what the military calls 'lessons learned.' Sgt. Williams thinks the unit spent too much time sitting near the roadside bomb waiting for orders on what to do.
"Me, myself, I would have called them and let them know I was taking that alternate route," he told them, "because if you sit there, you are just a 'sitting duck' [easy target]."
This exercise had an extra twist. The unit's commander decided to put one of the most junior soldiers in charge. Nineteen-year-old Private Kylie Gilson is proud of how he led the group through the series of challenges. "I think we did pretty good," he said. "We had good communication between the vehicles. We practiced. We knew what we were going to do. Train how you fight. Fight how you train. The more practice we get, the better off we'll be."
And Sergeant Williams agreed. "I think they did a great job," he said. "Based on the tasks that they were given to perform, they did a great job." The training sergeant leaves the unit with this advice. "Stay alert, stay alive, guys. Take care."
This training, which takes at least three months to complete, was developed last year to improve the preparation of U.S. Army Reserve and National Guard troops going to Iraq and Afghanistan. The Reserve and Guard are part-time soldiers, who usually get minimal training and need extra attention when they are called up for combat duty.
One of the senior training officers, Lieutenant Colonel Bill Wolfarth, says by the time they leave Camp Shelby they're ready to perform in the world's most dangerous places alongside regular army units. "Just as good, and in some cases better," he says. "And I can say that, I think, very honestly. They become not just confident, but they become comfortable."
They become comfortable in the simulations, and they are confident. "We are ready for it in all aspects," says Sgt. Roger Hackman, 22. "We have been trained on what we need to do. How we need to handle whatever situation comes. My favorite military saying that they came up with is 'Adapt and Overcome.' Anything that happens, we are ready for it. We will face it. We will take it on. We will adapt. We will overcome."
These soldiers will have to depend on that attitude and Camp Shelby's 'Theater Immersion' training program to see them through the dangers of Iraq during the next year.