Back to the Front: California Desert Perfect Place to Train for Iraq

A soldier with the 3rd ID trains at the National Training Center in California.
A soldier with the 3rd ID trains at the National Training Center in California.

As more Third Infantry troops head to Iraq, more get ready to leave later this year. Over 3,000 soldiers in the 4th Brigade will leave late this summer. For now, they've just returned from the closest environment they can get here at home. That means California and the Mojave Desert.

Under enemy fire, soldiers run with their interpreter across a dusty street. They're after Iraqi insurgents dressed in stolen army uniforms who had snuck in a meeting and killed several Iraqi soldiers and town leaders. Just as the troops open fire, the battle stops. A referee in this all-too-real exercise points out a cardboard grenade at their feet. These troops must lay down with the rest of the wounded. The attack is just one in a host of drills 4th Brigade faced at the National Training Center in California as they get ready to deploy to Iraq.

"You just don't get any level of collective training better than this," explained LTC Tim Newsome, Battalion Commander of 3-7 Infantry. "This is the graduate level course in collective training and higher level combat tasks."

During their month at the National Training Center, platoons, companies, and battalions take turns in each simulated town. They practice street to street patrols and combat techniques.

"You can never be too trained for when live bullets are flying over your head. Here, if you die, your beeper goes off and you go to the rear for a day or two. There, if you die, you're dead," noted PFC Michael Slocum.

One platoon proudly returned to their base with bombs confiscated in a roadside check point.

"We had a white vehicle try to bypass our checkpoint. My SGT and I chased them down. We did a routine check of their vehicle then we searched their bag and found this stuff right here in a backpack," bragged Private Ryan Shurtleff. "This is probably the best training I've had so far, pretty realistic."

They also brush up on the cultural skills that could keep a tense situation from getting worse. The whole time, an army of actors add to the pressure as insurgents, allies and anything in between.

"There's nothing else like this training, this environment and the people that are provided for them to train against like this anywhere else in the world," noted SSGT Paul Yoder, one of the role playing soldiers assigned to the NTC. "We push it as far as we're allowed to, as far as the Observer Controllers let us. We act as realistically as the script allows us."

Among the role players are 250 Iraqi-American citizens. Most of whom we can't identify to protect their families back home. Despite the dangers, all remain proud of what they do here.

"It's worth it. Everything we do here is worth it. Training the army before they go to Iraq is very important. Personally, I think we do a great job," said an Iraqi role player identified only as Sam.

"The bottom line is treat them with respect and honor just like you would anyone else," stated Captain Eric Tisland, commander for 3-7 Infantry's Alpha company.

Soldiers say every simulated death here at the training center paves the way to save lives, American and Iraqi, over there where the pressures and bullets are real.

This special series, Back to the Front: Training the 3rd ID, continues Tuesday on THE News at 6.

Reported by Dal Cannady,