By Amy May
Special to American Forces Press Service
June 23, 2008 - The scene in Building 7 at Muscatatuck Urban Training Center here was chilling. Visitors were greeted by the sounds of a screaming man, covered in blood and missing his legs just above the knees. A walk up the blood-stained and cartridge-littered staircase revealed another injured man attempting to lift his automatic weapon for a shot at whoever appears in the doorway. All the while, eerie music played on the loudspeakers and other gun-toting, shouting men darted out of the shadows to take shots at the training Marines.
A California special effects company set up the scene to imitate the real thing.
This realistic urban warfare training is what training center strives to do for everyone from local police officers to its latest guests, 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, based in Camp Lejeune, N.C.
An expeditionary unit, explained Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Bryce Piper, is a self-sufficient, 2,200-member unit that is rapidly deployable and cross-trained for a number of missions. Although much of their training here centered on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Marine expeditionary unit could be called upon to conduct a wide variety of missions, including conducting humanitarian, security or rescue operations anywhere in the world, clearing buildings and performing diplomatic missions in a war zone.
"This training is part of the regular work up for every MEU. We do this type of training as part of our regular cycle to make sure every Marine knows his job and knows the job of the Marine next to him," Piper said.
The Marines have excellent facilities at Camp Lejeune, said Capt. Shawn Rickrode, but they get used to them after training there daily, so it's beneficial to require them to use their skills in an unfamiliar environment, just as they would in a real mission.
The Marines spent their days at Muscatatuck Urban Training Center rotating through several training stations.
One scenario had the Marines guarding an entry point of the forward operating base, searching vehicles and their drivers played by actors seeking entry. If the Marines miss a bomb or fail to notice the driver is armed, they pay the price.
"We give them the general scenario, but the actors run with it," Rickrode said. "Obviously, we can't blow a vehicle apart, but some [explosions] are very loud and very sudden. We use cork to imitate the shrapnel."
Piper said another important lesson is cultural sensitivity. The Marines must try to learn the customs of a society they might be deployed to. For example, in Middle Eastern culture, it's rude to show the bottoms of your feet, and there are strict rules about men interacting with women.
The Marines can use a voice recognition translator when interacting with local citizens. Rickrode demonstrated the device, which takes sentences in English and translates them. It can be hooked up to a megaphone if the Marines wish to address a crowd.
It's an important device, Rickrode said, because there is no way the Marines could learn all the languages they might encounter.
At the mock checkpoint, the Marines dealt with vehicles attempting to storm the gate, cooperative drivers and exploding vans -- all situations they might face in a real war zone.
Another scenario required the Marines to visit a village tribal leader in Afghanistan.
The leader, an actor, expressed his distrust of the United States, but finally offered some intelligence about a cache of weapons behind a building where two suspicious men had been seen. As the Marines checked that out, a land mine exploded on a nearby soccer field, and several people were seriously injured. In that situation, the Marines must assume defensive postures, check out the immediate danger and then offer aid to the injured.
Marine Corps 1st Lt. Brandon Ward, in charge of the scenario, said it tests the Marines on several levels.
"They come in planning to bring peace and stability. Now we'll see if they'll hold true to their word and help out. The challenge is to get out of the aggressive mind set and just help the people," he said.
The most spectacular special effects were at the building-clearing scenario. The Marines were required to go through several buildings, looking for insurgents. Thin wires stretched across the courtyards to fire simulated, and loud, rocket-propelled grenades at anyone foolish enough to stick his head out a door or window. Inside, the Marines were shot at with small, paint-filled cartridges that bore an uneasy resemblance to blood upon impact.
In the Building 7 scenario, the Marines blasted open the door with an explosive and found an injured man inside.
After the initial push into the building, a few Marines stayed behind to offer help to the man who lost his legs in the explosion. Another man inside, however, wouldn't stop trying to raise his weapon and fire, so he had to be shot.
Marine Corps 1st Lt. Craig Bryan said the training should instill a willingness to help the injured, even if they are insurgents. If the person displays no aggression and drops his weapon as ordered, the Marines should offer medical aid. "Everyone deserves that," he said.
The special effects workers labored nearby, mixing buckets of fake blood and restringing their RPGs. The company has worked on TV shows such as "Point Pleasant," "Silk Stalkings" and "Pensacola: Wings of Gold." It formed a second division after Sept. 11, 2001, which offers military training complete with pyrotechnics, sound effects, realistic wounds and actors to play the enemy. Rickrode said about 40 actors portrayed various insurgents, injured people or drivers for the Marine training exercises.
The Marines also practiced techniques used when pulling over vehicles and attended a demonstration of military working dogs.
The dogs are trained for aggressive patrol work or to sniff out explosives. The MEU does not have dog handlers, but the commanders wanted them to be familiar with the dogs as a resource they could call upon.
After each scenario, the Marines went through the "hot wash," or after-action review. This is usually conducted by the trainers and commanders, but Muscatatuck Urban Training Center offers an additional tool: video. Building 7 is equipped with 58 cameras.
Doug Barker, a former Indianapolis Police Department employee, set up the system and hopes to install video surveillance in 23 locations at the training center. After an exercise, he can create a video for the trainees to watch. Showing people what they did right or wrong is much more effective than telling them, he said.
"They need to see what it looks like. It's not real effective until they actually see it," Barker said.
The Marines also trained for urban scenarios in nearby communities and at Camp Atterbury, Ind., but much of their time there was cut short by flooding and a tornado. Some of them put their training on hold to help with sandbagging at Indiana towns threatened by flooding.
"Humanitarian assistance and disaster relief are among the primary mission capabilities of the 26th MEU," Marine Corps Col. Mark J. Desens, the unit's commander, said. "Though it's not what we came here to do, we are ready to help those affected by this crisis."
The Marines said their training at Muscatatuck Urban Training Center was challenging. It was their first visit, and they were glad they made the journey, they said, even if the Indiana weather was a little inhospitable.
"This facility is so perfect for this type of training," Piper said. "The urban environment is exactly the kind of thing we're trying to train to."
(Amy May is a Camp Atterbury Crier staff writer.)