By Donna Miles
FORWARD OPERATING BASE SWORD, Kuwait, Oct. 19, 2006 – U.S. soldiers here preparing to move into some of the most restive areas of Iraq gave visiting civilian leaders an appreciation today of the quick reflexes and decision-making deployed troops apply every day. The Fort Carson, Colo.-based soldiers, members of the 2nd Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, put participants in the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference through the paces during a 6.5-mile training course dedicated to countering improvised explosive devices.
Riding through the course in a convoy of 12 up-armored Humvees, the civilians experienced much of what U.S. forces running patrols in Iraq face on a regular basis, Army Lt. Gen. Steve Whitcomb, commander of Coalition Forces Land Component Command, told the JCOC participants.
The civilians -- business, civic and academic leaders from around the United States -- donned flak vests and Kevlar helmets before taking their positions in a Humvee and maneuvering with the soldiers through the notional Iraqi al Bassayab province.
Their mission was to clear the roadway between two forward operating bases, Dagger and Sword, to ensure route security for convoys operating along Area Supply Route Los Angeles, Capt. James Enos, the convoy commander, explained in a pre-mission briefing. He shared intelligence reports of a possible explosive forward penetator - a sophisticated IED - in the area, as well as a vehicle-borne IED carried by a suspected suicide bomber driving a white pickup truck.
The group traversed a sandy course similar to what U.S. troops travel regularly in Iraq. It's part of a larger network of paved and dirt roads, built-up village areas and dozens of Arabic-speaking players who bring realism to the training scenarios troops practice before leaving here for Iraq.
Adding to that realism are dirt roads littered with debris that can harbor IEDs, intersections that bring convoys unavoidably close to car bombs, and chokepoints such as underpasses that limit drivers' ability to swerve or avoid attack.
This training, offered mostly to company-level leaders before they move north into Iraq with their units, builds on what the soldiers received at their home stations before deploying, Whitcomb told the group. "This is polishing the stone a little bit more," he said.
"This is important, because it's a commander's last chance to train his soldiers prior to combat," Army Col. Dave Rodgers, chief of training and exercises here, told the JCOC participants. "It's really critical from the leader's perspective that small-unit leaders get the chance to practice and further develop their leadership skills before they move north."
To make the most of the learning opportunity, observer-controllers watch every move as the vehicles maneuver along the course. They change the scenarios regularly to ensure the course constantly challenges the troops and that they never know what to expect. After the mission, these experts report back what they observed and any problems they identified, and pass along advice for better confronting a situation.
Just like the troops, the JCOC group encountered a host of deadly threats along the route. A blast and puff of black smoke denoted that a Humvee in the convoy had been hit, leaving two crewmembers injured. An approaching civilian vehicle wouldn't stop when flagged to hold back from the convoy, forcing the gunner to point his weapon. A white pickup truck raced toward the convoy as it approached an overpass near an Iraqi police station, exploding when the gunner engaged it with his M249 squad automatic weapon.
One JCOC member found himself patting down a suspected insurgent being detained for questioning, and other became an IED casualty.
After his Humvee pulled into Forward Operating Sword, Wade Jones, president of the East Mississippi Business Development Corporation, admitted he had "a surge of adrenaline" as he engaged a suicide bomber from his gunner's seat. "I can only imagine what a soldier feels when he experiences that for the first time," he said. "It gives you a real appreciation of the different challenges they're facing."
Army 2nd Lt. Barclay Keay, an infantry platoon leader, said the training his unit is receiving here will pay huge dividends when he and his fellow 1st Battalion, 9th Regiment, troops face those challenges after they move into Ramadi, Iraq, within the next two weeks. "Every time you do something like this, you learn something new and build on what you've already learned," he said.
For Pfc. Joshua Brown, driver for one of the Humvees, the more counter-IED training the troops get, the better.
"It's all about repetition," said Brown, who has already served a year in Mosul, Iraq, and as a combat veteran, refers to himself as one of "the old guys."
"The old guys automatically know what to do and do it. It's muscle memory. You know who's doing what and what's moving where," Brown said. "But this is particularly important for the new guys."
While not dismissing the value of combat experience, Whitcomb said U.S. troops moving into Iraq face an enemy that's constantly adapting its tactics, so they, too, must constantly adapt. They have to keep on their toes, quickly applying lessons learned on the battlefield to their training so they're prepared for the real thing, he said.
"Every convoy our soldiers go out on (in Iraq) is a combat mission," Whitcomb said. Helping to protect U.S. troops from the IED threat is a major Defense Department effort, Army Col. Dave Rodgers, chief of training and exercises here, told the JCOC participants. It's being conducted on several fronts, from developing new technological countermeasures to increasing the armor on vehicles to applying lessons learned from the battlefield, he said.
But a major part of the equation comes down to the ability of young men and women in uniform to observe their surroundings, recognize when something seems out of place and know when to trust their instincts, Whitcomb said.
He noted that decisions troops make in a matter of seconds can mean the difference between life and death for themselves, their fellow troops and the Iraqi civilians they encounter.
The JCOC participants said today's training gave them a better understanding of how quickly troops must react to situations unfolding around them.
"They're making incredibly quick, split-second decisions under a lot of stress," said Keith Sirois, president and chief executive officer of Checkers Drive-In Restaurants, based in Tampa. "Every circumstance is a potential threat."
Sirois said riding with the soldiers along the training course gave him confidence in their ability to react to those threats. "What I see is a very disciplined group that sees what's happening and knows what to do," he said.
"They're doing a very difficult job, but they're cool and calm, and they don't get ruffled," agreed Jimmy Orders, president of Park Place Corporation in Greenville, S.C. "These kids have life-and-death responsibilities day in and day out, and they do it so well."
Sirois, Orders and their fellow JCOC participants are business, civic, community and academic leaders from around the country who are spending the week observing U.S. Central Command at work. The Defense Department started the JCOC program in 1948 to help educate civilian "movers and shakers" about the military.