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War is Hell: Intense, Realistic Training for Iowa Troops

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FORT IRWIN, Calif. Down a dusty dirt road, U.S. soldiers enter an Afghan village on a peacekeeping mission.

Moments later, insurgents blow up the soldiers' Humvee. Each of the three men inside loses part of a leg. They hobble away from the explosion, cry out in agony and collapse.

The charred scent of gunpowder wafts through the air. Blood touches everything.

This is war.

"What looked like a missing leg was on a car and I was like, 'Wow. That's really realistic,' " said Pvt. Tanner Williams, 19, of Tama, with C Company of the 1-133rd.

THAT is realistic training at Ertebat Shar, a simulated Afghan village nestled in the mountains of the Mojave Desert at Fort Irwin. Members of the Iowa National Guard are here, immersed in intensive training for deployment to Afghanistan in coming months.

The life-size village mirrors a traditional Afghan community.

More troops arrive in town and find themselves in the crosshairs of the Taliban.

Afghan villagers shout at soldiers in Pashtun, their native language. Troops try to communicate with the locals using hand signals and facial expressions. Tension escalates.

As soldiers drive underneath a pedestrian walking bridge, they trigger an improvised explosive device, or IED. Every man in the vehicle dies.

The military has constructed about a dozen such villages at the Fort Irwin National Training Center, an area about the size of Rhode Island.

Thousands of soldiers from all over the country pass through here every year before they deploy overseas. The military refers to it as the Super Bowl of training.

Even though the bullets are blanks and the blood is fake, the villagers are Afghans. Amputees are authentic, too, but makeup artists make their injuries seem fresh. Wounds "bleed." Special-effects experts launch the explosive devices.

Anyone who sets foot inside the village feels as if they are truly in the Middle East. A peek behind the scenes makes you feel like you're on a Hollywood movie set.

Soldiers wear a string of sensors on uniforms and helmets. The equipment is nicknamed MILES, for Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System. It's essentially a high-tech laser tag game.

Soldiers still hear the sound of gunfire, but their rifles shoot laser beams instead of bullets. If a laser hits a soldier or vehicle, sensors beep to signal someone or something got hit.

Later, soldiers learn exactly when and where they were hit and how serious their injury would be in combat.

At a nearby cafe, an insurgent marches inside and blows himself up, killing soldiers and innocent civilians alike.

In the pandemonium, Staff Sgt. Curtis Wee, 26, of Iowa City, is shot and killed.

"I'm thinking in my mind, 'Had this been real, there would be uniformed officers at my mother's house.' So it really brings it home," said Wee, with Company E 334th Brigade Support Battalion. "The training out here at NTC is world-class."

While here, soldiers live at Forward Operating Bases living quarters, a command center, a shower trailer, laundry facilities, a dining area and a parking or staging area for vehicles, all surrounded by barbed wire.

No one gets in or out without consulting guards at the gate.

Soldiers sleep on cots in large, insulated tents. The hum of heavy-duty air-conditioning units drowns out the snoring at night. Everyone has little or no space or time.

"I'm used to being in a single house with my wife and my dog. To come here, room with 150 guys and not have much privacy can be a little stressful," said Spc. Neal Sauerberg, 27, of Galena, Ill., with 1-133rd HHC.

Coyotes, snakes, spiders and wild donkeys roam the local terrain. Temperatures often climb higher than 100 degrees, and rain rarely falls.

"It's a totally different culture out here," said Pvt. Cassandra Bridges, 22, of Bettendorf, with Company A 334th Brigade Support Battalion. "The mountains are awesome. That's our view every day. It's pretty sweet to look at."

The mountains are merely a beautiful backdrop, though, for a place where the military can fire millions of bullets without disturbing anyone. The nearest town, Barstow, is about 40 miles away.

There is little communication with the outside world. The military forbids soldiers from using cell phones or computers during the training. Military brass fear it could interfere with the missions and distract soldiers.

Said Pfc. Aaron McNew, 21, a Gladbrook-Reinbeck High School graduate, with the 1-133rd HHC: "I'm addicted to texting, like the rest of the world. It's been tough, but I'm getting used to not doing it."

Soldiers still can write and receive letters via the U.S. Postal Service. Down time is often spent with a pen or pencil in hand.

"I write letters to people to pass the time. It gets you thinking about your family and friends, because you can't talk to them," said Spc. Dan Kline, 26, of Des Moines, also with the 1-133rd HHC.

An ambulance roars into town to carry away casualties. Sirens scream louder than the cries for help.

First-aid begins.

Paramedics can't treat the terror, fear and tension that has infected this community, though.

Spending any amount of time in a dangerous, war-torn country would make most people nervous. Soldiers are not supposed to show fear. They must enter Afghan towns with a sense of confidence and act as leaders.

"To fight the fear, you have people right beside you who have weapons and armor and will risk their lives to protect you," said Staff Sgt. Jayson Mains, 31, of Cedar Rapids, with Company B 1-133rd.

This will be Mains' fourth deployment. He's already served in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iraq.

"I try to tell people what they can expect. ... I don't think it has hit people hard enough yet that they're actually leaving the country," he said.

Despite the uncertainty and risks involved, plenty of soldiers are anxious to arrive in the Middle East.

"You train for such a large variety of missions. Once you actually get in country, it's a relief because you can focus on the mission you're actually going to do," said Staff Sgt. Jacob Downs, 28, of Tipton, Company B 1-133rd. "I'm looking forward to it."

Note: One in a series of ongoing reports from Gazette staff occasionally embedded with about 3,000 Iowa Guard members training for deployment to Afghanistan. Most recently, Gazette staffers Mark Geary, Jim Slosiarek and Dane Firkus spent a week with the troops in California.

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