CAMP RIPLEY, Minnesota – Snipers in place, a convoy of Humvees stopped on the outskirts of a tiny village. U.S. soldiers dismounted their vehicles with M-4 rifles strapped across their chests and walked slowly under the hot sun toward a few Afghan men sitting under the awning of a small concrete building. Across the dusty road were two more buildings, with women milling around in front, dressed in colorful skirts and headscarves, selling bananas and fans.
The U.S. soldiers were looking for the village elder, a customary sign of respect in Afghanistan. They had come on intelligence that at least one insurgent was staying in the village.
Appearing in a long white flowing robe, the village elder greeted the U.S. soldiers – all communication was done through an Afghan National Army soldier who acted as a translator. After some conversation, the Afghan soldier translated the elder’s words. "They are not from here," he said of the insurgents. "They are from outside."
The U.S. soldiers’ goal was to maintain an atmosphere of calm despite spurts of emotion and impassioned conversation by villagers who started to gather nearby. The village elder invited the group leader inside for tea, while allowing other soldiers to conduct a search of the home to secure it.
Within moments, gunfire erupted from the next room. An insurgent had been hiding there and opened fire on the U.S. soldiers as they entered, wounding one. The soldiers returned fire, shooting and killing the insurgent.
In reality, this was all an exercise, conducted not in an Afghanistan village but at Minnesota’s Camp Ripley. No one was shot. There was no enemy. The guns fired blanks.
From the elders, to the village women selling wares, to the men in town, to the insurgents, all were working to the same end: to prepare Iowa Army National Guard soldiers for deployment to Afghanistan.
The scene was an amalgamation of many urban operations training drills the soldiers went through recently.
Afterward, the whole group conducted an After Action Review. Members of the military served as Observer Controllers giving feedback from an operational standpoint and the villagers, played by Afghans who now live in the U.S., critiqued the soldiers on how they did in terms of cultural awareness.
"If they go into town, they have to ask for the elder first," said Muhammed, who played the role of the village elder. Muhammed left Afghanistan 28 years ago.
The intensive training sessions, which took place in June, utilized all 53,000 acres of Camp Ripley’s sprawling grounds. The Camp Ripley facility has a long history of hosting National Guard units from around the country because it is such a large space; these Iowa Army National Guard soldiers came here for training ahead of their deployment to Afghanistan later this summer.
The urban operations training was only part of the weeks-long nonstop regimen here.
In addition to the austere living conditions and lack of sleep that is meant to mirror the reality soldiers will likely face when they’re deployed, every aspect of the training was designed to prepare soldiers for what they'll encounter in Afghanistan. Included were repeated training sessions at live fire ranges, mortar ranges, M-2 50-caliber heavy machine gun ranges, medevac helicopter lifts to evacuate wounded soldiers, areas where soldiers encountered Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and Traffic Checkpoint lanes.
Photo by Stephanie Himango/NBC News
Iowa Army National Guard soldiers engage in a training exercise at Minnesota’s Camp Ripley.
The realism of the drills was striking. In the IED training, as soldiers in Humvees negotiated the winding roads and vegetation on the lookout for IEDs, they came upon a broken-down vehicle on the side of the road. Even though they cautiously approached the disabled truck and the Afghans surrounding it, it was still a halting moment when the modified vehicle-borne IED exploded – sending a plume of dust and talcum powder into the air, creating the intended chaos.
To underscore the extent to which this training is designed to prepare soldiers for what they may encounter, artists were employed to create realistic-looking wounds among the injured – going so far as to create bloodied limbs and amputations.
A woman playing the part of an injured Afghan wailed in pain as her arm lay on the ground and stretched her other hand toward a U.S. soldier. While trying to secure the area, assess the damage and manage the Afghan actors moving around in apparent shock, the unit also called in a medevac helicopter to do a mock evacuation of one of their wounded.
Again, after it was over, they conducted an After Action Review to assess what they did well and what they could do better. The intention of doing multiple and repeated iterations of the drills, with ever-changing nuances, is to best prepare the soldiers for deployment.
Soldiers in the Iowa Army National Guard first learned of their upcoming deployment to Afghanistan last fall. At that time, an estimated 3,500 members of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 34th Infantry Division were scheduled to deploy.
Now that number has been revised to about 2,800 from the Iowa Army National Guard, plus about 350 Nebraska Guard soldiers, and about 100 from other states who will be part of the late summer deployment.
A brigade of this size makes this the largest deployment of the Iowa Army National Guard since World War II.