|Casualties from roadside bomb attacks in Iraq continue to increase, as insurgents deploy devices that leave even armored vehicles vulnerable. To learn how to better protect themselves, thousands of troops with the United States National Guard are being trained at Camp Shelby in the southern state of Mississippi. The National Guard, a military reserve force located in each U.S. state, is training in an environment that simulates villages in Iraq.|
This man is playing the part of an Iraqi sniper, pretending to shoot at National Guard troops who are learning how to protect themselves while on a convoy.
As they travel down a road at Camp Shelby in Mississippi, canisters burst with smoke representing mock roadside bombs.
For many of these soldiers, it's all new. Lieutenant Anderson, a National Guard platoon leader from Wisconsin says, "Once the booms start happening, and bullets start flying, the confusion sets in. So this is one of those things that needs to be constantly rehearsed."
Army Captain Kevin O'Connell, who trained police in Iraq, knows the danger of roadside bombs first-hand. He's showing these troops how to avoid the bombs, also known as improvised explosive devices or IEDs. "Now if you stopped anywhere, and you didn't plan on stopping there, something made you stop, whether it's an IED, a truck in the road, anything. That's because that's where the bad guys want you to stop."
Remote triggering devices such as cell phones and radios are being used to detonate IEDs. In Iraq, they can explode several bombs almost simultaneously. National Guardsman Wayne Winstead says the telltale wires connected to the roadside bombs are well hidden, in garbage, straw, or even animal carcasses. "Things that are not obvious anymore are the wires hanging off the road, or antennas and things like that."
Most of the men and women in the National Guard are part-time, and range in age from 17 to 60. They hold a variety of jobs or are students. The National Guard provides help with natural disasters and other emergencies in the U.S., but also serves as a military backup during war.
Currently, the National Guard and other military reserve units make up about 40 percent of the forces in Iraq. At Camp Shelby, National Guard soldiers spend up to six months learning the skills they need to survive.
Army Major Art Sharpe is a public affairs officer at the 70-kilometer square camp. He says of the training, "We try to create as close as possible, to replicate, the conditions they're likely to face as they go down range."
This also includes searching for insurgents in Iraqi villages, and protecting themselves from snipers hidden in fields. The soldiers also learn how to maintain checkpoints, and handle hostile villagers, which in one training exercise ends with smoke, representing tear gas, which is used to disperse the crowd.
Major Sharpe, who is 47 and a judge in civilian life, spent six months in Iraq, training people for the new Iraqi army. He says this training is meant to make soldiers think before they act. "For example, there were times when I could have shot someone myself in Iraq. And if I had been a nervous 18-year-old, I probably would have shot the individual. As it were, I paused, I waited, I gave the guy the benefit of the doubt. I analyzed the situation as it developed and I chose not to shoot the person. And it turned out to be the right decision."
Twenty-year-old Guardsman William Johnson, a jazz musician, is being deployed to Iraq in the next few weeks and thinks the training will help him, "We learned a lot today. This is very valuable training that we need to do, and I'm glad we made a lot of mistakes."
Like other soldiers, he says he'd rather make them now, than in life-and-death situations in Iraq.