BETTY ANN BOWSER: These soldiers are being trained to fight in an urban environment, to take a city street by street, door by door, room by room. With war talk growing louder each day, amid reports that Saddam Hussein's soldiers are dug in around Baghdad, this urban assault training at Fort Polk, Louisiana, is more relevant than ever.
The army tries to make it as real as possible. When soldiers come to train, they bring all of their own guns, ammunition, supplies, vehicles, helicopters, even tanks, since that is what they would have to do if they were actually deployed to the Middle East.
Col. James Terry is commander of the Joint Readiness Training Center.
COL. JAMES TERRY, Commander, Joint Readiness Training Center: This is as close to combat as it gets without actually shooting live bullets. They gain that experience. You know, they get the sights, the smell, the sounds, so that it's not new to them when they actually have to face combat.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Ever since the war in Vietnam, much of the American military involvement in the world has been in urban settings: Haiti and Somalia. And sometimes, the price has been high. In 1993, 18 soldiers were killed, 73 wounded when American soldiers went into Mogadishu to overthrow a Somali warlord. Retired Marine Col. Randy Gangle, an expert on urban assault training, says that kind of scenario could happen again.
COL. RANDY GANGLE, U.S. Marine Corps (Ret.): Don't expect one of these nice, clean wars that we had in Desert Storm, where, you know, hardly anybody even got hurt or even had to change their socks, for that matter. The casualty rate on the urban battlefield is about 30 percent. So, in other words, if you have an infantry battalion of a thousand men, you can expect about 300 of them to be either dead or wounded after the first day of fighting.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Gangle says the casualty rate is so high because fighting door to door is inherently dangerous.
COL. RANDY GANGLE: The urban battle space is without question the most difficult battle space for soldiers or marines to operate in. It is a very restrictive and constrictive battle space. It's very complex because of the nature of the construction in the environment. You've got the multiple dimensions of subterranean, you know, basements, subways, any number of tunnels or whatnot. It is the worst environment that the military can operate in. If you train for it, it's a lot less dangerous. If you haven't trained for it, it's as bad as it's going to get.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: That's why both the army and marines corps do this kind of training. The army says it spends one million dollars a day getting its soldiers ready. Thousands of acres of Louisiana farm and swamp land at Fort Polk have been turned into a made-up country. It's supposed to be like any third world place where the soldiers might be deployed today. When the war games take place, 11 times a year, the good guys are played by the soldiers in training. In this recent 14-day exercise, the good guys were the Third Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division out of Hawaii.
The bad guys are also played by soldiers, who take the role of opposition guerillas trying to take over the made-up third world country. When the two sides are in combat, they engage in a kind of laser tag. Their rifles are equipped with technology that can record hits on sensors placed on their uniforms and helmets. When the sensor goes off, that soldier is a casualty, and put out of action. Each time the war games begin, the opposition guerillas always have the upper hand. That's because they train year- round. They're so good that they often inflict 60 percent casualties. Col. Skip Lewis is their commander.
COL. SKIP LEWIS, U.S. Army, Fort Polk: My soldiers, the ones that are there in the buildings behind you, have fought out of those same buildings three or four times in the last six months. So they know every corner. They know that it will provide them a little different angle to fight from. They know... they know where the sewers are. They know how to escape. They know where to get up into the attics. They just... they know the terrain very well.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Although some of the soldiers of the third brigade have been through urban assault training before, most have not, especially young soldiers like 20-year-old Private Jason Boyle, just out of boot camp.
PRIVATE JASON BOYLE, U.S. Army: I love it. I mean, I always liked living on the edge, and going into a building, not knowing what's beyond the door.
SOLDIER: Second Platoon is going to come up, take leads, and find their traffic control point.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Captain David Cripe was Boyle's Bravo Company commander. He put Boyle and the other men through war rehearsals the afternoon before their first challenge. They were going into the made-up country to take over a small village from the guerrillas. And like most of today's urban assault action, they would go in at night. That made Cripe optimistic.
CAPT. DAVID CRIPE, U.S. Army: We own the night. When I started out in the army, we only probably had like one night vision goggle per squad. Now, everybody's got that. We've got technologies going by leaps and bounds.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But when Cripe and his men deployed at 2:00 in the morning, he also knew from intelligence reports that the guerrillas could be waiting for them. So he was prepared for the worst, and the worst was what his Bravo Company got.
CAPT. DAVID CRIPE: We came in direct fire engagement, and it took us about an hour or so to clear out the town and all that, and then secure the local area. And we took a lot of casualties, about...I'd say about down to about a squad in each platoon by the time it was done.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: What percent is that?
CAPT. DAVID CRIPE: Probably about 60 or 70 percent.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Then it was time for the most important part of the 14-day exercise: An all-out assault on the main town of the made-up country. The mission, once again: Take the town from the guerrillas. The army spent $58 million on the town to make it look like any place American soldiers might have to fight in today. More than a thousand cameras were installed inside and around buildings, so the actions of the soldiers can be taped and later analyzed.
For two days before the attack, the opposition guerrillas put wire and other obstacles to made it harder for the U.S. forces to get into the town. And their work paid off.
As the soldiers in training moved in at 1:30 in the morning, one of them got hung up on a piece of wire. But eventually the soldiers in training moved on. They took over the town's public school. Then, at another building, they got stalled by the enemy. They were also surprised by the presence of civilians, who threw up their hands in the windows of one of the buildings. They had been planted in the town by the army to represent local residents.
The U.S. forces tried to establish an offensive position by moving Bradley fighting vehicles into the streets, but the opposition forces immediately took them out.
All night long, there was heavy fighting as the U.S. forces tried to destroy the enemy. But at daybreak, the men of the Third Brigade still had not secured the entire town, and they had taken heavy casualties.
Most of the men had been up for days. Many of them had contracted the flu in the two weeks, and in the case of Private Jason Boyle, it hadn't turned out to be so much fun after all. The opposition, or "Op For," had thrown him a big curve.
PRIVATE JASON BOYLE: They had the upper hand. They knew the terrain. We, you know, came in not knowing too much about the territory, or whatever, and they had guerrilla warfare tactics - guerrilla warfare tactics that are much better than our normal war tactics, so...
BETTY ANN BOWSER: What did you learn?
PRIVATE JASON BOYLE: Don't trust no one. My rucksack got commandeered by Op For, and I went the first four nights without a rucksack.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: With nothing?
PRIVATE JASON BOYLE: With nothing, just the clothes I had on my back.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: For base commander Col. James Terry, it's those lessons learned that someday could keep Boyle out of harm's way.
COL. JAMES TERRY: It's not always what you do while you're at the training center; it's what you take away from here and how you improve. And in a ten- to eleven-day period, they get a plateful.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But urban assault expert Gangle says soldiers today aren't exposed to enough training.
COL. RANDY GANGLE: Right now, the average marine and infantry...or marine or army infantry or tank unit probably gets two to three weeks of urban training a year. We have found during our experimentation that it takes about four to five weeks of training to obtain proficiency, and proficiency equates to lower casualty rates on both sides, quite frankly, less collateral damage and less of your own. So if we're only doing two to three weeks, we're acquainted with urban combat, but we're not proficient at urban combat.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The proficiency of that training could well be tested in a matter of weeks. Right now there are more than 200,000 men and women poised for battle against Iraq in the Middle East.