September 15, 2016 –
The village of Guba is bustling. Local shop owners yell in foreign dialects hawking their wares from stalls that display colorful rugs and clothing. Women huddle together to whisper and steal glances underneath hijabs of the U.S. Army Soldiers meeting with the local police chief and village elder. Older villagers casually lounge while smoking in chairs trying to avoid the harsh midday sun.
A mushroom cloud of dust appears in the distance beyond the village followed by a booming eruption piercing the casual chaos of the marketplace.
The explosion scatters the locals.The streets quickly become deserted as the Army Reserve troops from the Fort Story, Va., based 437th Civil Affairs Battalion raise their rifles and take up protected positions throughout the village.
A man runs toward the Soldiers screaming incoherently while bleeding from his face and from where his arm used to be.
Sgt. 1st Class Derek Ungerecht, a civil affairs team sergeant from Chesapeake, Va., acts quickly and methodically to help the injured man to a building.
Luckily, the village of Guba isn’t real. It’s a fake town constructed of plywood, concrete and large metal cargo containers in the middle of the Mojave Desert at the National Training Center (NTC) in Fort Irwin, Calif.
The farmer, who blew his arm off from unexploded ordinance in his field, also isn’t really hurt.
“There’s a lot of confusion, there’s a lot of chaos,” said Ungerecht. “Role players play a big part in it … they really do fill the places out. If you walk into what would be a governance center, there’s some evidence that it should be that, it’s not just an empty room where you have to use your imagination. So it really helps with the training.”
After two deployments to Iraq as a military policeman, Ungerecht knows what a remote village looks like and what chaos feels like. He said this was some of the most realistic training he’s had in his 14 years in the Army.
“The buildings and infrastructure replicate the cities that would be found on the outskirts of large built-up areas,” said Maj. Larry Graham, senior civil military operations officer from Bellflower, Calif., and part of the training team assigned to the NTC Operations Group. “As the civil environment kind of develops, you have a number of civilians that will react to the kinetic and non-kinetic actions on the battlespace. So managing those effects becomes a critical task for any rotational training unit (RTU) that comes through here – to manage those, synchronize those and report those back up to higher headquarters.”
These types of civil military operations on the battlefield are exactly the situations that the troops from the 437th Civil Affairs Bn. train for in preparation for their upcoming deployment to the Middle East.
“Nothing happens accidentally, nothing is artificially injected. Accidents do happen, but nothing happens accidentally here. It’s all on purpose and with purpose,” explained Graham. “The level of detail we try to replicate is a realistic environment that is adaptive according to the RTUs positive or negative actions as well as the enemy’s. The enemy has an equal say in the fight.”
With three deployments under Graham’s belt, he knows that the battlefield is constantly evolving and combat is unpredictable. The specific civil affairs scenarios are geared to replicate real-world situations, even down to the living conditions.
“What we find is that training absolutely prepares them in terms of their craft, but the next logical step is to stress those things that they’ve been taught,” added Graham. “To put them in positions that are awkward, difficult, challenging, tired, stressed, hungry, in the heat.”
The Mojave Desert provides a stunning backdrop to stress these conditions. The relentless sun beats down on troops throughout the day, and at night cold winds harass the troops, temperatures dropping 30 degrees when the sun sets.
“The heat and just constantly being dirty kinda gets old after the first week or so, but then you kinda also get used to it,” said Sgt. Jacob King, a civil affairs noncommissioned officer from Farmville, Va., assigned to 437th Civil Affairs Bn. “It can either be the worst experience you have and the worst two weeks of your life, or you can look at it as the best training you’ve ever had.”
The heat and exhaustion from running 24/7 operations, dealing with an enemy that is constantly on the move and an insurgency to quell provides plenty of opportunities for realistic training for the Army Reserve troops.
“Most of this rotation we were out with an infantry line company, it’s mostly living out of a Humvee for two weeks,” explained King. “We sleep on cots next to our trucks every night, on the nights that we do get to sleep. Just living out of a ruck sack. Basically, I’ve been wearing the same uniform for six days now … living on as little as possible.”
Army Reserve Soldiers get few opportunities to train with their Active Duty counterparts. These troops jumped at the chance, despite the austere living conditions.
The civil affairs troops were attached to 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division and sometimes had to get back to basic Soldier skills by providing security or clearing buildings.
“We are civil affairs, but we still are part of the fighting force and our primary job, as any Army person, is to be a fighter first and then our other job comes second,” described King. “It’s not our goal to come out and get into a gun battle; it’s still something we have to do. When we come into a place like this, it’s still a hostile environment and we don’t just run away when we get shot at – we shoot back.”
There’s no lack of shooting and explosions during the training, day or night.
“Here at NTC we have MILES gear. It’s kind of like a giant game of laser tag and it gives it some sort of realism,” said King.
The Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System, or MILES, uses lasers and blank cartridges to simulate actual battle. When MILES gear takes a hit, an alarm sounds and your weapon is disabled.
Every troop, vehicle and role player wears the MILES gear everywhere in the vast training area. Just like in combat, a Soldier has to be prepared for anything at any time.
King and his team proved just that after they set up an observation point and had to provide security for a dismounted element as the friendly forces were depleted. The next thing that King and his team knew an enemy tank was bearing down on them.
Immediately, King and the other civil affairs troopers opened fire with a .50 caliber machine gun. The enemy tank was disabled shortly after.
“I’ll be deploying at the beginning of next year; NTC is a great opportunity to work on the basic soldiering skills to be ready to go into a forward environment where things might be hostile,” said King. The Army has given me a lot of leadership skills and really helped me advance my career. And vice versa, I’m not just another guy that’s gone through basic training and knows how to shoot a gun; I have a skillset I can apply to what we do to help accomplish the mission.”
After Ungerecht successfully stopped the one-armed villager from bleeding with a tourniquet, the team linked up with the local leaders to find the closest hospital. They provided aid for the man and took him to the vehicles before the trainers stopped the exercise to give them an after action review.
Ungerecht’s team did the right thing. They set stage for future partnerships with the village locals and proved that they were there to help. The team celebrated by hanging poncho liners from their vehicles to escape the sun, drinking water and trading the contents of their Meals Ready to Eat (MRE).
“Yea, I’d come back at some point,” said Ungerecht with a smile. “Well, it’s hot and it’s dry, but it gets cold at night, which is a plus … We’ve gotten hot chow several times during our time but it’s mostly MREs. Sandy, dirty, dusty constantly, it’s the first time I’ve gone two weeks without taking a shower.”
Throughout it all, the troops rarely complained. At least not about the training.
“Cook a steak. I’m going to Kroger and buy a two-inch ribeye and eat a steak,” said Ungerecht with a toothy grin, when asked his plans for his first day home.
However, for some of the Soldiers from the 437th Civil Affairs battalion, their homecoming from NTC will be short-lived. Soon, they’ll be saying goodbye to their loved ones again for a much longer deployment. This time in real danger, but also a little more prepared to handle it.