Training for Danger
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BETTY ANN BOWSER: The National Guard’s top general recently came to the Mojave Desert in California to watch his soldiers training for Iraq. Lieutenant General Steven Blum watched with great interest because soon, the National Guard and reserves will make up nearly half the fighting force in Iraq. It’s a far cry from the old days of the National Guard soldier as weekend warrior.
LT. GEN. STEVEN BLUM: We have to transform the National Guard from the Cold War construct of the strategic reserve to the current construct, using it as an operational reserve. This requires changing the way we think, the way we resource our units, the type of units that we have, where these units are changing, the capabilities that we have within our citizen soldiers and citizen airmen of the army and air National Guard.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: For four weeks, soldiers from the Washington National Guard’s 81st Brigade engaged in war games at the army’s national training center at Fort Irwin, California. They learned how to handle prisoners, how to be sensitive to Iraqi culture, how to Medivac casualties — because in Iraq, these won’t be war games.
BRIG. GEN. JOSEPH FIL: What we’re trying to create is the most realistic replication of what they’ll face when they go to Iraq that we possibly can, but much more difficult– much, much more difficult– so that the typical day here is… would never possibly happen when they get over there; the thinking being, if the training is much more difficult than the reality, they’ll be extraordinarily successful with reality.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The 1,000 square miles of desert at Fort Irwin has been rigged with everything from underground tunnels to so- called mad bomber shacks, where would-be insurgents make homemade bombs.
CAPT. MARK FARIA: This simulates his explosives. He’s been using grenades to booby trap, and in fact one of the booby traps that we will set up here is in the ceiling. The grenade gets put up in the ceiling, and this ball of tape gets wedged up in there with the grenade. When he hits the… when he steps on the fishing line, the tape comes down, the spoon will fly on the grenade, causing it to detonate.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The soldiers also go through various scenarios they might encounter in Iraq. In this one, the National Guardsmen approach a simulated Iraqi village where their mission is to look for illegal weapons. First, they’re greeted by other soldiers posing as Iraqi citizens, who yell anti-American slogans.
GROUP: Go home! Go home!
BETTY ANN BOWSER: As they enter the village, loudspeakers announce their presence.
SPOKESMAN ON LOUD SPEAKER: Attention, citizens of the village. Coalition forces are conducting a search for illegal firearms and weapons.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Reporter: When they move in, there is gunfire… ( gunfire ) and then, chaos. An Iraqi civilian is accidentally shot. It was the second time that day the National Guardsmen did the same exercise, and the second time they had problems.
BIRG. GEN. JOSEPH FIL: It didn’t go exactly the way we wanted it to. The inner cordon, which is the folks that are controlling the inside part of the town, were in too close, and they got mixed up with the population. And instead of isolating it, they got intermingled with it, and we had some casualties. And so we’re going to do it over again, and… as we always do here when things don’t go the way we want them to.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Not only are the guardsmen training for new skills, they’re also leaving behind old skills, and that has sparked criticism. Until recently, the 81st was a heavy armor brigade, with big Abrams tanks and armored personnel carriers. Now the 81st and one other National Guard brigade are being trained for the mechanized infantry, and to move around using lighter trucks and Humvees. The Pentagon made the decision to leave most of the heavy armor behind because it felt troops could move around more easily in the smaller, less imposing Humvees.
LT. GEN. STEVEN BLUM: Tanks are intimidating at least, and they’re actually too heavy, too large, and too cumbersome for the missions. You don’t need to button up in a tank and be in an armored vault and be able to do your job. You’re not going to be able to interface with the people. You’re not going to have good situational awareness. You’re certainly not going to build any relationships buttoned up in a vaulted armored tank.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But moving around in Humvees without heavy armor also makes soldiers more vulnerable when they’re attacked with bullets, rocket-propelled grenades, and improvised explosive devices, or IED’s. More than 100 troops have been killed in Iraq by IED’s since the end of the combat phase of the war. That accounts for about 40 percent of all casualties. Defense consultant Victor O’Reilly, an advisor to a member of the House Armed Services Committee, says the decision to leave heavy armor was a mistake.
VICTOR O’REILLY: Improvised explosive devices, RPG’s, and rifle rounds wreak havoc on the human frame. You need armor. They’re in harm’s way, and some will die unnecessarily, in my judgment. If they had armored vehicles, fewer would be injured, fewer would die. It’s very difficult. I think it’s inexcusable.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Most of the National Guardsmen we talked to weren’t quite sure what to think, especially the men who’ve been driving tanks for years.
SGT. JOHN HANCOCK: I’ve been a tanker since I’ve been in, going on 11 years. This… not really dismounted, but the infantry aspect of running around on Humvees is really new, but we are adjusting well.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Do you think you’re going to be as safe?
SGT. JOHN HANCOCK: The armament protection is not there, but our tactics are sound. We have some very good leaders, especially in our platoon.
SGT. CHRIS WELLS: You kind of get used to having that armament around you, kind of get this godlike feeling that nothing can hurt you. And now with the Humvees we have, the IED’s, the mines that we’re going up against… there’s a definite sense of vulnerability there. The Humvees we have now, they don’t have enough protection against certain IED’s. The reports that we’re getting are that they’re getting bigger and better.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The use of Humvees with no metal armor has become an issue with Brian and Alma Hart of Bedford, Massachusetts. Last year, they lost their son, PFC John Hart, when he was killed in Iraq.
BRIAN HART: He ran out of ammunition, and their vehicle had no armor or protection, and so they were essentially shot up in a vehicle with no doors or side paneling. And John was shot at least in the neck, and possibly in the shoulder as well. And his lieutenant was shot in the leg, left leg from the right side, because the bullets literally went through the vehicle, through his leg, and out the back of the vehicle.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The Harts and other families who’ve lost loved ones in Humvee incidents have pressed the Pentagon to put metal plating on all the 11,000 Humvees in Iraq. So far, the military has plans to do that to almost half of those currently in use there, a process known as up-armoring. But it could be a year before the work is finished. The military has also accelerated production of new up-armored vehicles, but critics like O’Reilly say that won’t provide enough protection.
VICTOR O’REILLY: The Humvee is essentially an SUV. It’s a vehicle. It’s a truck, if you will. It’s not a fighting vehicle. It was never designed to be. It was designed as a transport vehicle which could go over rough terrain, and that’s it. And by adding armor to it, by the way, you also restrict its mobility. It can’t go off-road nearly as easily. So what you’ve got is a big, heavy lump that offers you some protection, but it’s not adequate, in no way.
LT. GEN. STEVEN BLUM: An up-armored Humvee is not going to give the soldier inside that vehicle the same protection afforded by a tank. But you can’t do the same job with an up-armored Humvee that you can do with a tank, or vice versa. If you need a tank, you need a tank. If you’re looking at an armored vehicle to patrol urban areas, then the up-armored Humvee makes some sense. Let me tell you that there is… no one in uniform puts anything at a higher priority than protecting our soldiers. But putting someone inside a ballistic protected vault is not always the answer.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: General Blum thinks the training his National Guardsmen have had will serve them well in Iraq, and he is comfortable with the guard’s new role.
LT. GEN. STEVEN BLUM: We are now front-line soldiers on the global war on terrorism right here at home, or in the home game, or overseas in what we call the away game, the scheduled away game of homeland defense, or homeland defense in depth. And that means at our current utilization rate, within the next twenty-four to thirty-six months, 80 percent of our citizen soldiers and airmen will be combat veterans of a significant deployment, or veterans of a homeland security operation that they performed right here at home.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, 148,000 citizen soldiers have been placed on active duty. The soldiers of the 81st brigade are now in Iraq as part of the largest troop rotation since World War II. Their deployment is for one year.