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thedrifter
04-23-06, 10:21 AM
Marine base simulates Iraq conditions
Posted 4/22/2006 6:06 PM ET
By Erica Solvig, The (Palm Springs, Calif.) Desert Sun

TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. — Staff Sgt. Michael King peers down the dirt road, quickly ordering those behind him to stay close as he searches for insurgents who might be hiding in the rows of windows and empty doorways.

Chants of prayers can be heard from the mosque. The feint sounds of gunshots are in the distance.

King keeps the group moving. It's tense and fast-paced, with a lot of reliance on instinct.

Without notice, an explosion.

A scene from Iraq? Not quite. This town is only 55 miles from Palm Springs and only 4 miles from the rest of Marine Air Ground Combat Center.

It's part of Mojave Viper, an extensive month-long training that uses more than 250 role players and two working towns to test Marines from throughout the nation on urban warfare and the rigors of the desert.

Because it's the only Marine base with this type of training, every deployed unit sends at least one member here.

A key to his war in Iraq, President Bush was expected to tour the training during his visit here Sunday until a last-minute schedule change. He'll still attend church at the base and eat lunch with Marine and Navy families.

"This is as real as you can get," said Gunnery Sgt. Kelly Crawford, an explosives technician who has served in Iraq twice.

Marines secluded in town

Mojave Viper, which has evolved from decades of Marine training techniques, makes troops feel like they already are in Iraq.

The Marines are stationed away from the rest of the base, in housing known as Camp Wilson, with nothing but open desert around them.

It's here that troops undergo everything from live-fire training and detection of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to patrols of the vast desert either by foot or in convoys of seven-ton armored trucks.

"(It's designed) so they're not doing it for the first time in Iraq," said Capt. Misty Posey, an engineer who helps oversee the IED training.

Marines spend hours in simulated scenarios of Fallujah or Baghdad, sitting in one of four Humvees surrounded by projection screens, practicing communication and shooting at insurgents.

About half of the Mojave Viper training is spent in the two towns, known locally as Wadi al Sahara and Khalidiyah. Spanning about 300 acres, these towns are essentially shipping containers arranged to be different-sized buildings and made lifelike thanks to shops, mosques and electricity.

Marines who have grown their hair and beards out, as well as civilians hired at $150 a day, dress in traditional garb and speak only Arabic phrases and broken English.

Even the signs are in Arabic.

These role players live in the town for days or weeks at a time, depending on the length of the training. They run stores and even hold town hall meetings, led by a designated mayor, voicing concerns such as a lack of water so the Marines can get used to public service parts of the job.

One minute, a role player might be an Iraqi shopkeeper. The next, he might be an insurgent.

"It's a very adaptive fight we're fighting over there," Crawford said.

Khalidiyah, the smaller of the two towns with about 100 buildings, opened in 2004. Wadi al Sahara debuted in September 2005 and has nearly 400 buildings.

They cost roughly $23 million. Plans call for them to be expanded over time.

Simulating desert patrols

The vast open space on the 932-acre base also gives Marines ample opportunity to practice desert patrols.

Riding in the seven-ton trucks across the gravel and dirt terrain is bumpier than an old wooden roller. The sand kicks up so thick it nearly blinds anyone trying to peer out across the landscape and spot insurgents or bombs hidden along the roadway.

Marines sometimes practice live-fire exercises during these patrols, approaching buildings made out of reinforced concrete buildings with plastic green figures that pop-up dressed as either a civilian or enemy.

The Marines call them "green Ivans," a throwback to the Cold War era.

Though some basics remain the same, the Mojave Viper training changes frequently. Officials say the entire war has been a constant adapting game, with insurgents catching on to the Marines' techniques and trying to beat them.

Marines such as King say it is as real an experience as troops can get on American soil. An IED injured the South Dakota native Aug. 4, 2005 in the Fallujah area.

"You ever heard of flashbacks?" he asked as the convoy approached Khalidiyah during an exercise Thursday. "Sometimes it happens."


Ellie