Mark Geary's Reporter Notebook: Fort Irwin – Monday, September 27

By Mark Geary, Reporter

You can't simply fly to Fort Irwin, California from Cedar Rapids, or any other airport for that matter. Instead, you have to fly in to a nearby city. The Iowa National Guard suggested flying into Las Vegas, so that's what we did. We took the Sunday night Allegiant direct flight to Vegas. Nearly everyone on board was on their way to go on vacation and gamble. There's a two hour time difference between Vegas and Iowa. Ft. Irwin is in the same time zone as Las Vegas. When it's 10:00 p.m. in Cedar Rapids, it's 8:00 p.m. on the west coast.

Once we arrived in Las Vegas, we gathered all of our gear and luggage, rented a car and headed to our hotel in Barstow, California. The drive took about three hours. Barstow is the nearest city to Ft. Irwin. It's about 30 miles away. Because we arrived so late, we couldn't check-in to Fort Irwin until the following morning.

By 9:00 a.m. Monday morning, we were at Ft. Irwin. I've never been to a desert before. The base is located in the middle of the Mojave Desert. It's dusty, hot and dry here. You can see for miles. Mountains are everywhere you look. The military chooses to train here because the terrain and climate mimic many portions of the Middle East. Once you drive through the gates of Ft. Irwin (also called the National Training Center or NTC), you feel like you're in another country. It's nothing like the previous two bases where the Iowa National Guard has trained. We visited soldiers at Camp Ripley, MN and Camp Shelby, MS back in June and August. Both of those places felt like forest preserves. Here at NTC, I have yet to see a tree.

The NTC is the military's premier training facility. As a result, there is a lot security and protocol that everyone (including media) must follow. We spent about three hours discussing policies and procedure with the Public Affairs Office. Next, we headed out to Forward Operating Base (FOB) Denver. This is the FOB where much of the leadership and coordinating team resides. All of the FOBs at Ft. Irwin are named after American cities. The FOBs don't resemble the cities they're named after. And, no, none of the FOBs are named after a city in Iowa. We met up with Public Affairs Officer Major Mike Wunn at FOB Denver. Maj. Wunn has worked with us before during our visits to Ripley and Shelby. It was great to see a familiar face. We spent a few hours touring Denver and also reviewed more policies and procedures. Denver is full of tents that house everything from soldiers' living quarters to critical computer equipment.

Next, we loaded our gear into Humvees and rode along on a military convoy to FOB King. Driving through the desert is bumpy, dusty and slow. Vehicles travel at about 20 mph. People in Iowa complain about potholes. Take one trip through the desert and you'll never complain about a pothole again. The ground is uneven, cracked and full of gaps and holes. Small bushes and huge mountains dot the landscape. You feel like you're driving through fog, but it's actually dust.

The distance between FOB Denver and FOB King was not that far, but it took well over an hour to complete the journey. Once we finally arrived, military officials told us we may or may not be spending the night there. We're supposed to spend the bulk of our time at FOB Seattle. At this point, we didn't know if we were leaving that evening for FOB Seattle or if we would depart the following morning. Everyone was hungry and it was dinner time, so we headed over to the "Chow Tent." They served up beef, carrots, peas, mashed potatoes and bread. It wasn't that bad. I liked the mashed potatoes better than anything else.

Later on in the evening, we spent some time with the medics. We've tried to learn more about them at Camp Shelby and Camp Ripley, but never had the opportunity to spend much time with them until now. The medics may not get all the "glory" of fighting on the frontlines, but they are the men and women who save soldiers' lives. While at the NTC, they're participating in a variety of training exercises to prepare for Afghanistan. They simulate injuries and ailments. Soldiers told us they're trying to develop a "muscle memory" so that when they are in the Middle East and a patient comes into their facility, they'll know how to react immediately. When troops get injured, they're obviously under a lot of stress. Therefore, the medics must remain calm and confident to put the injured soldiers at ease.

This evening, we tried to start putting our stories together, but encountered equipment problems. We were unable to load video from the camera onto our computer to edit. Tomorrow morning, we're going to contact KCRG staff to see if they can help us troubleshoot.
We'll be here until Friday. It's the same crew of journalists as before: Mark Geary (Reporter), Dane Firkus (videographer), Jim Slosiarek (photographer). We've all enjoyed following the Iowa National Guard and we're looking forward to telling you all about the NTC.
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