By Sgt. 1st Class Chris Seaton, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service
Jan. 8, 2008 - Army Spc. David Leopold sat in the break room of the brigade air defense operations center. A fuel handler for Company E, 3rd Battalion, 158th Aviation Regiment, Leopold is used to working hard. For the past few days, he'd been doing just that while manning a guard tower on his forward operating base just outside Baghdad. It's part of the job for soldiers of all military occupational specialties while stationed in Iraq. For days at a time, they leave their flight lines, motor pools and offices to gear up and watch a fence line.
On the inside of the fence is the Iraq they know: sand-bag-covered container housing units, dining facilities, rocks and mud. On the other side, an Iraqi city bustles with street vendors, children playing soccer and an ever-increasing flurry of activity signaling new life in a recovering country.
For many, like Leopold, watching the city from a tower is as close as they'll get to life outside the forward operating base. For now, sitting in the break room, he and others were watching a movie between shifts when a voice broke over the radio with a single code word that instantly told the soldiers the base was under attack.
Leopold sprang to life. His body reacted before his mind could process the next steps, and before he knew it, he was standing in full body armor waiting for instructions. He was sent to guard an important tactical operations center.
"When an attack happens, everybody (on tower guard duty) not manning the tower is sent to areas on base to guard sensitive property," said Leopold, a native of Lawton, Okla. "We just move as quickly as we can to secure the area."
This one was just an exercise. The base was still secure, and all was well at Camp Taji. But training like this is important for a lot of reasons, those who participated said.
"It's a good reminder that we're still in a combat zone," Leopold said. "The war doesn't stop on a FOB just because we put up a fence. Anything can happen."
"The attack exercise simulates what would happen if the base was directly attacked," said San Antonio native Sgt. 1st Class Shon Skinner, the Task Force 12 force protection noncommissioned officer. "In an aviation unit, we've got a pretty important task of protecting this airfield."
During the exercise, organizers watch to see how people react. They have goals for what should happen if a base is attacked. The exercise lets them see what actually happens.
"We put a lot of emphasis on getting it right, and I put a lot of stress on soldiers," Skinner said. "We have to see what happens and what their attitudes are when we start inducing stress."
Statistics in the global war on terrorism say the chances of a forward operating base being attacked by anything beyond infrequent mortar or indirect fire are low. And Taji's brigade combat team soldiers, who regularly patrol the streets of Baghdad, tell stories and bring back photos of reconciliation and improved security.
But insurgents in Iraq have tried coordinated attacks on other bases. So far, none has succeeded. The idea of the attack drill is to keep it that way.
"Personally, I don't see (an attack on Taji) happening, but it's comforting to know we have a plan," said Task Force 12 network systems operator Army Spc. Bryan Coffey, who hails from Anderson, S.C. "It could definitely save lives by getting us into place if something did happen."
"We are ready, and we'll always be ready," Skinner said. "If not, we'll continue to train until we are."
For Leopold, the message was clear. Whether or not he's seen it in his six months of pumping fuel in Iraq, the war outside the fence that his hard work supports is very real.
"Anything can happen inside or outside," he said. "We're going to be ready for either one."
(Army Sgt. 1st Class Chris Seaton serves with the Task Force 12 Public Affairs Office.)