There would be two training iterations for the brigade that day, each followed by an evaluation so the unit could discuss its strengths and weaknesses during the training exercise in an effort to not repeat the failures in the second iteration—or in the real world. “There are so many different units that come through here, and there can be some where they work perfectly as a unit, and that should be the Army’s TTP [tactics, techniques, and procedures], but then you move along to another unit and it just doesn’t work for them. It’s because of personalities, leadership, and equipment,” Capt. Tabin said. “I’m here to get these guys in the best position for when they go down range.”
“That’s what she…” I elbowed him before he could finish.
“We’re just trying to refresh them back to the basics of movement techniques,” explained Sergeant Michael Harper, with Headquarters and Headquarters Troop, 1st Squadron 11th Armored Calvary Regiment. “We give them as much training as we can to prepare them for deployment. So, we’ve got a suicide-vest bomber, a couple snipers….” He was dressed as an insurgent while explaining this to us. So, what makes the soldiers Real Men? “You’ve got to be above average to do the kind of stuff we do, that is all I can say,” Sgt. Harper said. Soldiers can’t completely mentally prepare for their life ahead; they just have to take it as it comes and adjust as they go.
As we walked away, Andrew said, “I can’t believe some of the best relationship advice I’ve ever heard came from an insurgent.”
And then the training exercise began. The mission was to go into the village and establish security and make contact with a village elder. But not long after the soldiers got into the town, a mock IED exploded, powerful and real enough to rattle our teeth. Villagers began running around screaming in the soldiers’ faces. Bloodied role-playing soldiers/villagers stumbled down the training lane carrying their own severed limbs, flesh hanging off the bones. American and Afghan bodies dropped and formed pools of blood. The special effects rivaled “Saving Private Ryan.” So did the disorder.
“Machine gun, 12 o’clock!”
“We’ve got one KIA!”
“We’ve got an enemy down!”
You’re the f*cking team leader—take charge!”
“What’s wrong with him?” “He’s dead, dude.”
“This reminds me so much of the last dinner with my ex,” Andrew whispered.
No, this was now a kill zone.
Once the initial panic was over and the sounds of gunfire let up, the atmosphere seemed far too casual from our vantage point. Some soldiers crossed the lane without guns drawn. Others seemed to be hiding in a building, which appeared to make them an easy target. It didn’t take long for the control freak in Andrew to turn to Captain Daniel Cross and suggest the orders he himself would have given to the unit. “I mean, the Strykers didn’t even bring in any Strykers,” he said. Capt. Cross is with the Goldminer Team, Operations Group; he’s the officer in charge of the training lane. “It sounds really easy. But we’re trying to represent their worst day in Afghanistan, and this is a kill zone,” he told us.
“Right now they’re trying to figure out whether the commander of the company has any kind of command and control so he can make his next decision because he knows he’s got casualties,” he continued. “Does he have situational awareness going on? I don’t know. But I agree with how you’d have handled it. They have overwhelming firepower. I would have brought those vehicles down here, too. What’s the risk? We have to sacrifice Strykers more than soldiers.”
He paused, then noted a common problem they break soldiers of during training: “They’re getting fixated on defeating the enemy instead of neutralizing the enemy.”
Andrew and I also wondered to ourselves whether part of the “inaction,” as Capt. Cross called it, was that for many, this was their first true glimpse at the overwhelming realities of what may lie ahead—111-degree heat, carrying 80 pounds of gear while being shot at, watching comrades go down, hearing the injured scream in agony to be saved, all the while trying to focus on their specific job. It probably scared the hell out of some of them.
“You know what scares the hell out of me about war?” Andrew quietly asked me. “That I could die.”
His words lingered in the air like the smoke bomb a soldier had just set off to provide a purple cloud of visual protection for two soldiers dragging another to safety. Another soldier carried an injured member of his team in his arms. We could see others talking to the role-players portraying Afghan friendlies; the look of resentment on one soldier’s face suggested that sometimes you can’t hide your real feelings even during make-believe.