Mark Geary's Reporter Notebook: Fort Irwin – Thursday, September 30

By Mark Geary, Reporter

If you ever do any research about the National Training Center, you'll certainly come across plenty of information about the realistic Afghan villages sprinkled throughout the facility. One of the most well-known villages is called Ertebat Shar. Throughout our time at Ft. Irwin, every soldier has raved about the training they received in this particular village. Today, we got the chance to experience this village and it was the most memorable moment of our entire trip thus far.

The military originally constructed Ertebat Shar to resemble an Iraqi village. But, now it has become an Afghan village. It looks just like a real town right in the middle of the desert. However, this place is full of more than 70 actors who bring the village to life. Some of the actors are from Afghanistan. When a group of soldiers comes through this training village, they get hit by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED). You hear the bang, feel the heat of the flames and see lots of smoke. Actual amputees act as wounded soldiers in this exercise, too. Hollywood make-up artists make the amputees look like their foot just got blown off. The military does not hire veterans for this role because they believe it would be too traumatic for vets to relive the day they lost their leg. We spent some time talking to the special effects people who are in charge of detonating the explosives. It was fascinating. These men and women take a lot of pride in their jobs. They know it's important to make everything look as authentic as possible so soldiers feel like they are in a hostile Afghan village.

Fake blood covers parts of the buildings and vehicles in the area. This is not simply red food coloring. I asked someone what was in it and it surprisingly has a lot of ingredients: Sorbitol (a preservative), corn syrup, baby powder, dishwashing liquid, laundry detergent, water, red food coloring and a little bit of green and yellow food coloring. When you look at this stuff, you'd swear it was real blood.
Soldiers who go through this training get shot at and blown up by the insurgents. The soldiers all wear a vest that has a string of electronic sensors. If they get hit by enemy fire, the sensors beep. It's like a high-tech game of laser tag. Training Officers can then tell each soldier where they got hit, when they got hit and whether those injuries were fatal.

We shot a lot of compelling video at Ertebat Shar and we're eager to put the story together so you can see it for yourself. This exercise is supposed to replicate the "worst day ever" in Afghanistan. The military has stressed to us that the Iowa National Guard is on a peace-keeping mission. Soldiers are going through a lot of other training that involves methods of establishing trust and having conversations with the Afghan people.

Back at FOB Seattle, we said goodbye to the members of the 1-133 Bravo Company. They packed up all their gear and headed over to another section of Fort Irwin to complete the next phase of their training. Throughout this entire time at the National Training Center, we have been living with the soldiers. We sleep on cots right beside the soldiers, eat meals with them and share community latrines (bathrooms) with them. We've been in similar situations at Camp Ripley, MN and Camp Shelby, MS. By being embedded with the Iowa National Guard, we've gotten an amazing opportunity to get to know the soldiers. It's been a lot of fun hearing about their previous deployments or learning about the families. Everyone here deeply misses their loved ones and they often struggle to talk about the separation. However, they all know there are a lot of people back in Iowa who support them.

Tomorrow's our last day at Fort Irwin, and we're going to miss being here. Photographer Jim Slosiarek, Videographer Dane Firkus and I are all going to miss this place.
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