There's a little piece of Iraq in the Louisiana swamps. Shambling buildings, forlorn Arabs, pesky media, insurgents and BOOM! -- even suicide bombings. At the Army's Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) at Ft. Polk, what was once a Vietnam War-style training ground for light infantry has, since 2001, transformed into a high-fidelity simulation of urban counter-insurgency operations.Brigades bound for Iraq rotate through JRTC for month-long exercises. They perform pre-planned missions and react to changing circumstances. They're observed and graded every step along the way.The detail is amazing. Actors portray everyday Iraqis and tribal leaders. Reporters from local papers fill in for the international media, filing stories that appear in newspapers published within the simulation. If the news is good, the populace stays calm. If the news is bad, you might have bombings, snipers, riots. Or the local insurgent cell might just decide to mix things up, drop a mortar on your base or assault your outposts. There's realistic pyro for everything.And did I mention that everyone is equipped with MILES gear -- basically military-grade Laser Tag -- so that soldiers know when they've been hit or when they've accidentally gunned down a French reporter or an Iraqi baby? When somebody gets hit, the observers send him to a holding area and stick a sensor-equipped medical dummy in his place. The dummy gets evacuated and treated just like a real patient. And if the docs screw up and the dummy "dies", then the brigade personnel shop has to file the paperwork to get a replacement soldier, at which point the guy in the holding area gets to re-enter the fight.Amazing.Jason Hartley's blog Just Another Soldier has some great anecdotes from JRTC:Tomorrow we go into the box for our final training exercise before going into combat. Here at the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) at Fort Polk, the scenarios that units go through are all pretty much unwinnable. I dont think anyone has ever beaten JRTC. But thats kinda the point. You will lose. Its just a matter of how long you can hold out before losing and how gracefully you lose. This, apparently, is a good way to assess the battle-readiness of the brigades that come to be given a stamp of deployable before going over seas. The guys that are posted here, the Geronimo Joes as theres known, spend the better part of the year in the field playing the opposing force (OPFOR) for unit after unit that comes down here to be tested including the Rangers, Special Forces and all manner of bad ass. Even these elite units get their asses handed to them most the time. Geronimo Joe knows how to play the game really well. They know these training areas like the backs of their hands, their MILES laser equipment is zeroed perfectly and they know how to fight in such a way that will inflict the maximum amount of damage with the minimal amount of effort. The mission we are taking part in involves my entire brigade and is going on right now. My company will be relieving the guys that are out there now. So far a key logistical bridge has been destroyed, the Brigade Sergeant Major has been killed, three Bradley fighting vehicles have been destroyed by IEDs, two soldiers have been captured and a massive car bomb recently killed 47 soldiers. (Just so things are clear here, none of this is real, its all a training simulation.) My job will essentially be to keep a small town safe. This entails quite a bit of work and the way they have things scheduled, I dont think they expect us to eat, sleep or poop for five days straight.If all goes well, I'll be headed to Polk in June to play in JRTC. And in July I should be going to Twentynine Palms, California, to participate in Mojave Viper, the Marines' version of JRTC. Stay tuned.P.S. -- The Brits have their own, somewhat humbler JRTC at a place called Catterick. Check out my story in The Village Voice.
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