By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
June 18, 2008 - The searing triple-digit heat makes you think you are in Iraq.
It's the kind of heat where you can close your eyes and still feel the sun burning your eyeballs through your eyelids. It's dusty and sparse, and everything's brown, save for occasional scraggly, olive-drab bushes strung along the rocky hills.
But it's not Iraq. It's Twentynine Palms, Calif., home of the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center. Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, came here yesterday to talk with Marines and sailors going through the latest in pre-deployment combat training.
The heat isn't the only thing that resembles Iraq on this desert landscape. Settled into a dusty valley just below a jagged mountain ridgeline is a mock Iraq village of more than 500 buildings with more than 400 occupants. The complex serves as the training foundation of Mojave Viper, a 30-day exercise that all Marine infantrymen attend before deploying to combat.
Marines train on full-spectrum operations -- combat and security operations, developing security forces, and conducting humanitarian missions. The goal is to train each Marine to respond appropriately based on varying situations, and to learn to increase or decrease force from one situation to the next, officials said. Marine infantry and combat logistics battalions attend the training, along with some sailors attached to the units, for a total of 26 battalions and nearly 25,000 Marines and sailors annually.
As a battalion, but broken down to various levels, the Marines work their way through kinetic, or traditional military, and nonkinetic, or civil-military, operations, facing scenarios that make them choose the appropriate level of force.
Throughout the training, the Marines are constantly put in situations they will face in the combat theater, officials said. Battalion staff and other officers work through operations training, civil military affairs and lessons in how to engage civilian leadership.
Mullen sat down to a traditional Iraqi meal here yesterday with Iraqi role player Frank Matti, who acts as the town's mayor, and a few mock sheiks. Matti is an Iraqi who now lives in Las Vegas and works at the center training troops.
Instructors said that when battalion commanders come to the training and first meet with the sheiks, they sometimes find out their priorities don't match the tribe's priorities. This forces them to learn to work with the local government.
Sometimes they will improperly search homes or make other mistakes that upset the sheiks, Matti said.
"We like to have these [mistakes] to teach the battalion how to deal with it," Matti said. "It is our job to fix the mistakes. If there are no mistakes, there is no reason to be here." It's better to make mistakes and fix them here, because making the same mistake in Iraq "could cost a life," he added.
As Mullen walked through the town, Marines searched vehicles and conducted patrols. Under a camouflage net, a Marine staff sergeant and his squad sat at a table and talked with mock Iraqi army soldiers, through an interpreter. Outside the gate, an Iraqi man stoked a fire. Down one road was a traditional Iraqi market, loud and full of negotiation as Mullen walked through. Getting into the role, the chairman haggled over the price of a washing machine, but walked away. Later, Mullen struck a deal on a small children's bike.
The town here replicates everything about a real Iraqi town, albeit on a smaller scale, except for local children, said Marine Lt. Col. Dutch Dietz, the operations officer for the tactical training and exercise control group. He said that almost all of the commanders tell them that the environments they face in the combat theater are identical to their pre-deployment training here.
To keep current, Dietz said, his office sends a team to Iraq every six months to study trends and collect data. They constantly survey returning units and commanders for conditions on the ground.
No matter how often a Marine deploys to Iraq, it always changes before he returns, Dietz said.
"In those seven months while they are back here, so many things may have changed," he said. "Really, as soon as they leave Iraq, what they know of it is already outdated."
Dietz said the training translates to a safer environment for Iraqis and U.S. troops.
"How they are able to interact with Iraqi army commanders, police chiefs, sheiks, local governments, how they handle escalation of force ... all create more security and a better environment and a safer environment for the soldiers and the Iraqi civilians," Dietz said.
Marine Lt. Col. Andy Milburn is readying for his third deployment. When he was first in Iraq, there was more of an adversarial relationship between the Iraqis and the U.S. troops. Back from his last deployment in Anbar province, he said it's changed. "Now it's a lot less kinetic," he said, adding that the relationships are better between the local people and the Marines.
Milburn said the training has replicated the Iraqi security forces realistically and that the cycle of operations during the training also is realistic. And while it's hard to quantify how many lives are saved by receiving the training, the combat veteran commander said he would be "reluctant to deploy without it."
Across the road from the Mojave Viper training compound is a training ground for deploying explosive ordnance technicians. There, they learn the latest in what the enemy is doing to kill U.S. forces with bombs. Again, tactics are updated constantly with what is going on in the combat theater, instructors said.
"Every time we do something differently, [eney fighters] adapt," one instructor said.
Mullen walked along a dirt road, littered with hidden improvised bombs, each pointed out and explained by the bomb technicians. The admiral even got to "drive" one of the most popular bomb robots, called a Talon, a lightweight, versatile robot designed for missions ranging from reconnaissance to weapons delivery.
At the end of the day, Mullen talked to about 100 Marines being trained as transition team members. The center trains the trainers who will deploy to mentor Iraqi and Afghanistan forces.
"There's no more important mission," Mullen told them. "This is the path home. There is nothing more important to long-term success than getting that right."
Mullen said trainer teams have to approach their mission differently from how they'd go about a typical Marine mission.
"You charge into this environment, and being the best you can be ... takes on a different meaning. Things get redefined," he said. "Being the best you can be in this environment ... is to have [Iraqi troops] be the best they can be."
And while there are no quick solutions to building a safe and secure Iraq, Mullen told the group getting ready to deploy in August, "you can't solve the world's problems. But you can put another brick in the road."
Mullen said he finished the day impressed with the training. This is the chairman's first visit to Twentynine Palms.
"It's incredible training. It's an incredible opportunity to be able to make mistakes before you get in theater," he said. "My hat's off to all of the trainers here, including the role players, who have put together a program designed to help us make progress ... and save lives."