Thursday, September 18, 2014

Photo Essay: A Fake Iraq in the Middle of the Mojave Desert

So I'd been around Fort Irwin plenty of times in my explorations of the Mojave Desert. You can hear its explosions or sonic booms when you visit Calico Ghost Town next door. I got lost near there trying to find Harper Dry Lake and Rainbow Basin.

I knew it was an active military base, but I had no idea what actually happened inside there.



It turns out that Fort Irwin – located 30 miles outside of Barstow, CA – is home to the National Training Center...



...where soldiers go to learn how to brave the desert heat, navigate the arid landscape, and fight insurgents before being deployed to the Middle East – namely, Afghanistan and Iraq.



The grounds themselves act somewhat as a museum for historic tanks and other retired military vehicles...



...and they welcome visitors from all over to come explore the base...



...and have a very affordable, generously portioned meal...



...in their cafeteria.



But the main attraction here is getting on one of the busses...



...crossing the "international border"...



...and arriving in one of the 14 mock villages...



...in a fake Arab country...



...built like a movie set to acclimate soldiers to the foreign culture they'll be facing...



...and try to simulate the most stressful situation possible...



...with street vendors barking in a language they don't understand...



...surrounded by unfamiliar religious traditions...



...in the high desert heat.



To me, even as the military vehicles arrived for their training operation, the training area (known as "The Box") appeared more like Pioneertown or Paramount Ranch than any medina I'd ever been to in the Middle East (though, granted, Morocco and Tunisia are more North African than the Arab countries the U.S. tends to fight).



The mock operation included lots of pyrotechnics including fake bombs going off and the resulting fireballs...



...a suicide bomber collapsing in a cloud of fake red blood...



...hand grenades, smoke, casualties, and other elements to prepare soldiers for their potential "worst day ever" out in combat (without totally breaking them down).



The soldiers are surrounded by a number of American citizen (but often Middle East-born and Arabic-speaking) role players, who have relocated to Fort Irwin and live in barracks in or near the villages, working fulltime as insurgents, vendors, townspeople, local police, or maybe even the mayor.



Everyone on the ground is equipped with laser tag-like gear that monitors when they've been "hit," and what the severity of their injuries are. They then receive a casualty card, indicating treatment needed, so the soldiers can attend to the wounded properly, and reduce any further loss of life.

It's an immersive experience both for the soldiers-in-training and also civilian visitors, in such a remote location, in conditions that so closely mimic Afghanistan or Iraq. It's also a bit upsetting to witness, at such close range, what military personnel face when they get deployed out to these types of warzones.

And although for years Afghanistan had become a bigger problem than Iraq, the latest ISIS-related events have brought Iraq back into the forefront, making the NTC's activities even more relevant now.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Joint Forces Training Base (Former Naval Air Station), Los Alamitos
Photo Essay: Ancient Petroglyphs Secured Inside a Navy Weapons Testing Station
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