Ft. Irwin, California -- It's 110 degrees here on the southern edge of Death Valley when Alpha Company storms Medina Jabal. On July 27, twelve days into their two-week exercise at the National Training Center, the Soldiers of Alpha Company are resigned to the heat, if not accustomed to it. After just a few minutes exposed to the blazing sun, sweat soaks their gray and tan combat uniforms and leaves salty white deposits on their 25-pound armor vests. They drink water religiously and, whenever there's a lull in operations, seek the nearest shade.Alpha's tribulations at NTC are shared by all the 10 5,000-soldier brigades annually that train here before deploying to Iraq. Their trials are part of a accelerating trend across the U.S. military services of providing ultra-realistic training to its troops.For Alpha, right now there's no time for rest. The commander of the 2nd Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade, Col. Jeffrey Bannister, has ordered Alpha -- from the 1st battalion of the 9th Infantry -- to secure Medina Jabal in advance of his July 28 meeting with the regional governor. All over the Rhode Island-size desert range, 2nd Brigade units are engaged in mock combat with "insurgents" from the resident 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, but the most important fight is here at this tiny, shambling village of concrete and plywood buildings. Victory in this simulated Iraq, just like in the real Iraq, hinges on hearts and minds. If Bannister is going to win over the local populace, it's going to happen here when he stands up with the governor (portrayed by a Kurdish Iraqi national) and promises a better future for the residents of Medina Jabal (played by Iraqi nationals and local actors).But the insurgents know that, and they will focus all their efforts on wrecking Bannister's carefully orchestrated event. Down at the 11th ACR's operations center in the heart of Ft. Irwin, staff officers plot 2nd Brigade's movements on a map and consider their options. With Alpha moving into Medina Jabal, it's going to be hard to slip in fighters. Someone proposes an Improvised Explosive Device smuggled in a truck. Another pitches mortar barrages. Snipers are an option too. And if Alpha interdicts all these efforts, then the 11th ACR -- the so-called "Opposing Force," or Opfor -- can send teams to harass the brigade's Forward Operating Bases, including its vulnerable helicopter base at FOB Miami, in an effort to draw Bannister's attention away from Medina Jabal.But Alpha seems to know exactly what the Opfor is up to.Read the exciting conclusion at Military.com. And check out my NTC photo-essay at Flickr.--David Axe
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