The deadliest weapon used by insurgents in Iraq is what the U.S. military calls the Improvised Explosive Device (IED). They are homemade bombs, usually put by the sides of roads, and detonated as U.S. or other coalition troops are passing by. The military has devoted significant resources to trying to combat the primitive but effective weapons, including some high-technology sensors and jammers. But the military is also using a low-tech solution -- intensified training, much of it at a huge base in the southern United States.
The trainees are in a convoy, moving quickly along a dirt road, assigned to help control a reported civil disturbance. But they won't reach their destination. The simulated roadside bomb goes off as they pass under a bridge.
SOLDIER: "Help! Help! Help! Help! We need an aid team up here! And a litter [stretcher])! Help!"
The vehicle stops next to a plume of smoke. A trainer declares that the engine and the radio have been destroyed, and he hands out plastic laminated cards to the soldiers, telling them the extent of their injuries.
WOUNDED SOLDIER: "Conscious and respond appropriately to questions… Can't follow commands… Screaming... Loss of blood… I basically had an amputated right leg…"
For a long time nothing happens. The other vehicles in the convoy keep their distance at first, as their training has taught them. Then they move in to help their wounded comrades.
2ND SOLDIER: "Ow, my leg!"
A second phony bomb goes off. More casualty cards are handed out. And as the survivors struggle to carry their wounded friends into one of the remaining vehicles, a sniper pops up on the bridge.
3RD SOLDIER: "Stop. Get the last guy out."
The soldiers return fire, but more are wounded. The rapid series of attacks finally ends when an officer shouts the code word "index," and a soldier who had been declared dead lives again.
4TH SOLDIER: "Index! Sweet, I'm alive again."
This was a typical afternoon for these soldiers, who are preparing for a yearlong deployment to Iraq. Their training officer, Captain Kevin O'Connell, gathers them by the side of the road to evaluate their performance.
"All right, gentlemen. Whose eyes were open? If your eyes weren't open before, they sure should be now, shouldn't they?" asked Captain O'Connell. "If you were a casualty at the end, raise your hand. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. Ten casualties, all off of one IED attack. That's pretty bad, huh?"
The soldiers are a bit embarrassed by their performance. But Sergeant Jeff Vorple is enthusiastic about the experience.
"Today is actually probably the best training we've gotten so far," said Sergeant Vorple. "I wish we would have been doing this since the beginning. We're getting toward the end. This is stuff we've been doing in the classroom, but we haven't been doing it live fire. To actually get out and practice it is a lot different than reading about it in a book."
Captain O'Connell, who spent 16 months in Iraq training the country's new army, concludes that for a first effort, these American soldiers didn't do too badly. But he wants them to remember not to rush into what he calls a "kill zone," and to follow procedures to secure the area first, even if their wounded comrades are screaming for help.
"What they'll walk away from here with is, 'All right, one IED goes off, I've got to be looking for that second one.' And so when it does happen to them they don't get complacent and say, 'All right, I've got wounded to take care of.' They worry about the secondary IEDs. They worry about follow-on ambushes. When it does happen to them in Iraq they can fall back on their training and say, 'Oh yeah, I remember this,'" explained Captain O'Connell.
The Improvised Explosive Device exercises are a key part of this new training program, which the army calls "Theater Immersion." It is designed to present the trainees with scenarios that are as close to the real thing as possible.
"IEDs are the largest threat over there," added Captain O'Connell. "Any training you do with IEDs is going to be priceless. And I would like to do it over and over and over if I could, and just throw different scenarios at them. But every IED is different. Every attack is different. All we can do is give them the building blocks and let them take it from there."
And Captain O'Connell says the trainers change the program frequently, as reports come in from Iraq about changes in insurgent tactics: where they put the bombs, how they detonate them, and what follows an initial explosion.
"They have to get used to the fact that they are always in a combat zone, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And they can be hit at any time," he noted.
To simulate that, the soldiers who train at Camp Shelby live full time at mock Forward Operating Bases, similar to what they'll find in Iraq. They wear their body armor and carry their weapons all the time. And they can be hit with a simulated attack any time they are riding or walking along a road, or even sitting in their bases. Officials say the program is effective. They report that soldiers in Iraq have sent messages indicating that it helped keep them alive. And the trainers say that's what "Theater Immersion" is all about.