FORT IRWIN, Calif. • Shouting orders, Fort Carson’s Sgt. Michael Garcia arranged simulated wounded soldiers from a tank platoon like dominoes on the ground.
A day later, Staff Sgt. Anthony Romero ran through the streets of a near-deserted town, hands clutching an M-4 rifle while lugging his captain’s radio, watching for an elusive, if fictional, enemy.
The exercises 1st Brigade Combat Team soldiers endured in the Mojave Desert last week offer a glimpse at what soldiers might encounter in wars that come after 11 years of counterinsurgency warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Simulated tank-on-tank battles against the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment — a unit of U.S. soldiers at Fort Irwin whose sole job it is to train troops by fighting them — played out across the Rhode Island-sized training range, a change for soldiers who spent nearly all their time in Afghanistan on foot patrols or inside armored Humvees.
Officers directed surveillance drones and artillery fire from makeshift tents that were stripped down, moved and reconstructed every couple of days. Medics slept on litters positioned around their armored personnel carriers; gunners slept inside their M-1 Abrams tanks.
After every mission, Army coaches provided feedback to company and battalion leaders.
Each scenario prepared 1st Brigade for wartime duty in 2013, should they be called. A destination hasn’t been publicly announced yet by the Defense Department.
But one thing is clear: Afghanistan is far from the only option.
“You name it, any bad things that are happening out there in the media we’re taking into account,” said Lt. Col. David Oeschger, Fort Irwin’s operations officer who coordinated the training exercise.
“And we’re creating the scenarios for us to train against them.”
“What it brings back to the center are the days of old.”
Defined by two protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army has changed since those Cold War “days of old.” So have soldiers.
And this month, troops with the 1st Brigade Combat Team prepared for an uncertain future by practicing for almost any contingency.
11:24 a.m., Nov. 4
“Here they come,” said Sgt. Michael Garcia.
Kicking dirt in the air, two armored personnel carriers carrying eight casualties ground to a halt. Shouting orders, he arranged the simulated wounded-like dominoes on the ground.
“Is it arterial?” he asked one medic. “It’s not arterial? And he’s conscious? Put him right over there next to those guys.”
The morbid scoreboard tallying the 1st Brigade’s first battle against the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment came into focus at Garcia’s makeshift medical station on Nov. 4.
Facing actual tanks and not cardboard cutouts for the first time, a unit of tanks and Bradley Armored Fighting Vehicles “ran into the buzzsaw” when they tried to take a mountain pass, said Maj. Michael Schoenfeldt, executive officer for the 7th Squadron, 10th Cavalry Regiment. Enemy tanks teed off on the unit with laser guns, causing most to be labeled as “destroyed.”
Fifteen mock casualties arrived in Garcia’s care that day. Four of those wounded “died” en route.
The tally exceeded what medics normally saw the last decade in Iraq and Afghanistan. But training exercises are meant to stress even the most battle-tested soldiers, leaders said.
All 11 soldiers that Garcia treated managed to get to the brigade’s field hospital in time to be saved. None rattled his nerves — mostly because training exercises carry no risk, he said.
It was another chance to ingrain each step into his muscles.
Three deployments and one unimaginable day 11 years ago has taught him that he can only do so much.
A New York City firefighter on Sept. 11, 2001, Garcia heard the first plane fly overhead and crash into the World Trade Center. He corralled people underground when the first tower began to fall.
Until an access point opened up a block and a half away, he remained underground.
“I can’t even remember how long it was,” Garcia said. “It had to be hours. It felt like an eternity.”
He left New York and joined the Army, trading one trauma for a life of many more. If deployed in 2013, it would be his fourth tour since 9/11.
“I know trauma,” he said. “I understand trauma. It’s easy to me. It’s like Lincoln logs — Legos. The body makes sense. So it’s what I do.”
Garcia stepped back and surveyed the surroundings after watching the last of the casualties be loaded into an armored personnel carrier.
“That’s how it’s done,” he said.
12:17 p.m. Nov. 5
Packed like sardines in a hot, stuffy tin can, four soldiers and one Iraqi interpreter sat quietly, listening to the rumble of a Bradley Armored Fighting Vehicle carrying them on their way to mock battle.
Most stared blankly ahead. One slept.
“You learn to sleep when you can, as long as you can,” Staff Sgt. Anthony Romero said.
The massive tank exercise that kept Garcia busy on Nov. 4 paved the way for these weary soldiers’ next mock mission on Nov. 5: The invasion of a city overtaken by enemy troops to the north.
Their training grounds were called Razisch, an 800-building town constructed by the Army to train its soldiers in urban warfare. Defined with stucco-covered shipping crates resembling buildings, it carried an eerie similarity to towns that Fort Carson troops patrolled in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The scenario was meant to offer the most realistic look at what they could face overseas. Each soldier carried blank ammunition rounds in their rifles, capable of mimicking the sound of gunshots but triggering lasers at the end of their rifles.
All players — Fort Carson troops, enemy forces and interpreters — wore harnesses equipped with sensors in what became one of the world’s largest and most intricate games of laser tag.
The sights and sounds inside this town offer a realistic view of combat, soldiers said. But replicating the tempo of a firefight is painfully hard to do.
Romero and the soldier who fell asleep, Sgt. Edward Myers, know how real combat feels.
Only a few weeks into basic training when terrorists struck on 9/11, Romero went on to serve four deployments — one to Kosovo, two to Iraq and most recently one to Afghanistan. Nineteen of his friends died during the tour to Baghdad.
Myers, of B Company of the 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment, also served in Baghdad, a deployment that came a few months after the birth of his first son. The prospect of leaving for the National Training Center proved just as tough as his last tour.
A week before leaving on Oct. 17 for California, Myers’ wife gave birth to their second child, a son.
“It’s always that first year that they do everything,” he said.
Myers woke up as the vehicle came to a stop. With little warning, the back hatch opened, and they went to work.
12:38 p.m., Nov. 5
The shift back to fighting against a more traditional army came as a relief to Romero. Identifying the enemy became easier. The battle lines came into focus.
After years of fighting shadowy insurgent forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, Romero wanted little else.
But moments after the back hatch of their Bradley opened down range at the National Training Center, Romero and his soldiers faced a reminder of the always ambiguous battlefields they’re still likely to encounter.
Despite the fact that the 1st Brigade fought with tanks to reach this city, the exercise called for them to use the skills they learned over the last decade, including counterinsurgency tactics and the ability work with and train a local army.
Romero’s commander Capt. Otis Ingram, immediately went to work — noticing two-dozen villagers and a group of local police officers growing restless — each actors in a carefully orchestrated test.
Ingram first tried diplomacy.
With Romero by his side providing a radio to battalion leaders, Ingram implored the policemen to put down their guns. They only wanted peace, said a transportation worker acting as their representative to invading U.S. forces.
Ingram wanted a gesture of good faith.
“What if one of your guys gets nervous and shoots at my guys,” Ingram said, “this town will go to pieces.”
While keeping watch over those officers, he gave a quick interview with a local television station — actors hired to replicate overseas media. Then he tried working the policemen again to cooperate.
Without warning, gunfire from a different company erupted about 100 yards away. In seconds, the battle lines again grew hazy.
Civilians populated the town, as did insurgents and an enemy army intent on keeping its newly captured city.
Romero jumped into action, clutching his rifle and running wherever Ingram went. After 11 years of these battles, Romero relied on muscle memory.
A possible fifth deployment on the horizon, he treated it all as another day at work.
“If you join the infantry and think you’re going to do nothing, you have some issues,” Romero said.
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