CAMP GUERNSEY, Wyo. — A mobile Iraqi war zone has taken shape on the rolling plains and ridges of eastern Wyoming, the latest incarnation of an Army National Guard training exercise meant to quickly shape citizen soldiers into battle-ready warriors.
The Guard developed the training model — called Exportable Combat Training Capability, or XCTC — to help develop its soldiers for their expanded role in the country's wars. In January, the Army approved the exercise as a program of record, making it eligible for permanent Department of Defense funding.
"The Army training strategy had always indicated that we needed an event like this, but we had never been funded for it," said Col. Rob Moore, chief of the Army National Guard training division, in a phone interview from Arlington, Va. "We had never had anything, frankly. The war brought this requirement to the forefront and the Army now has addressed that."
The Wyoming National Guard's Camp Guernsey is currently hosting the training exercise for the Nebraska Guard's 67th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade, which is scheduled for deployment to Iraq this summer. About 1,400 soldiers from the 67th and other units are honing their skills in the makeshift Middle Eastern environment for three weeks in May.
The pre-mobilization training is also meant to maximize Guard soldiers' service time overseas. Development of the training model accelerated in 2007 when Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced an effort to limit Guard deployments to no longer than one year.
"We had been playing around with it, but we realized when he said 12 months was 12 months, we really had to get better utility out of pre-mobilization training, and XCTC was the venue we used for that," Moore said.
The Army Guard has about 363,000 soldiers, and a quarter of them, or about 91,000 soldiers, deployed during fiscal year 2009, according to the Guard. The number of Army Guard soldiers deployed peaked at more than 84,200 in January 2005, and leveled out to about 40,700 in April.
XCTC is designed to simulate soldiers' life in Iraq and the tension and chaos of the battlefield. The guardsmen live in operating bases and work among mock Iraqi villages with Iraqi actors playing civilians. Other soldiers act as opposing forces. Goats rented from a local rancher wander the area.
Commanders are able to review and dissect individual soldier's performance in 3-dimensional view through a system of GPS units mounted to each soldier and vehicle, weapons-mounted laser tag equipment and video that records the action.
Col. Philip Stemple, commander of the 67th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade, likened the system to a football team's video review of its plays.
"You can capture your lessons learned. You can explain to the soldiers what they did well, what they didn't do well, and then you go back out and train it again," said Stemple, who helped create XCTC while working for the National Guard Bureau. "It really improves your training rapidly."
The culminating exercise of the Camp Guernsey training will be two practice missions — a humanitarian delivery of electricity and medical supplies to an Iraqi village, and a mission to nab an insurgent enemy stirring up trouble in an Iraqi hamlet, Stemple said.
The other units participating in the training are the 134th Cavalry Squadron of the Nebraska Guard, the 67th Signal Company of the Montana Guard, the 141st Military Intelligence Battalion of the Utah Guard and the 325th Military Intelligence Battalion of the U.S. Army Reserve from Connecticut, Stemple said.
1st Lt. Tyler Schiele, XCTC project officer for Camp Guernsey, has been working since September to coordinate the various contractors and logistics required to put on the training.
"In a sense, this was just open grassland a month ago," Schiele said during a late April tour of the tents and other necessities of a mock forward operating base, where 600 soldiers are living inside tightly controlled boundaries for the duration of the training.
The training has been a boon to area businesses — ranging from ice to gravel suppliers — and for hotels throughout the region that are housing the roughly 500 support personnel providing services for the training, Schiele said.
At the completion of the exercise, most of the equipment will be packed up and taken to the next XCTC. The Guard plans five rotations of the training this year, including at Camp Edwards in Massachusetts, Camp Ripley in Minnesota and Camp Gruber in Oklahoma.
"The great thing about it is, you can tailor to the commander's needs for the specific mission that he or she has been tasked to do when they deploy," Stemple said.
Moore said the mobility of the training model saves money.
"I can take this capability to a guard unit at it's local annual training site, as opposed to moving everybody long distances to use it," he said.
The Guard is spending about $27 million in 2010 to train nearly 10,500 soldiers — about 100 companies, according to the Guard Bureau. The average XCTC training rotation cost for 28 companies is $7.6 million.