May 26, 2019

Photo Essay: The Former 29 Palms Air Academy Readies Future Iraqi War Heroes

I hadn't noticed it much when I first visited Joshua Tree back in February 2009. But when I lived in Joshua Tree during the summer later that year, it was inescapable.

All those young boys were stationed at the 29 Palms base while the rest of us were hiking, basking, getting coffee, taking a dip in the pool.

They'd get one night out on the town, maybe, and I'd see them drinking margaritas at Kokopelli's Kantina on karaoke night, ready to kiss up on any lady willing to pucker her lips.

I'd wonder what life was like for them on that base—and I knew there were others, the married ones with wives and kids in tow, probably having already bounced from one place to another, maybe feeling punished with having been stationed in the California desert in summertime.

The Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center (MCAGCC) isn't generally open to the public, though community groups can request a tour to walk through Heritage Park...

...and catch a glimpse of daily life.

Officially commissioned as a Marine base in 1957, this huge swath of land had been used before that by the Army, with its beginnings as a glider school (a.k.a. 29 Palms Air Academy).

The Navy took it over in 1943—but two years later, after World War II ended, they removed it from its active duty support role.

During the Korean War of the early 1950s, our U.S. military needed a space big enough for long-range field artillery (missiles, rockets) as well as giant tanks so troops could perform complete and realistic combat simulations.

Those simulations didn't end with the Korean War—because in Summer 1966, conditions in Vietnam were simulated as part of "Operation Sidewinder." And it wasn't just the heat, but also ground troops being attacked by fighter jets and learning to avoid booby traps and civil insurrection.

Through the end of the Cold War, 29 Palms was also where you could find training for Fleet Marine Forces (an amphibious brigade) and the Combined Arms Training program, which took an integrative approach to warfare and trained its battalions in fighting in the air, on the ground (a.k.a. infantry), and with long-range weapons (a.k.a. artillery).

In 2003, soldiers who had been trained at 29 Palms were deployed to Iraq as part of "Operation Enduring Freedom," a.k.a. the "War on Terrorism" in the wake of 9/11.

The operation against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban may have technically ended in 2014, but the conflict is ongoing.

The entrance to the base is situated just north of the town of Twentynine Palms, which is civilized enough despite its proximity to a national park.

But the extent of the base stretches for miles and miles and miles, practically meeting up with Ft. Irwin outside of Barstow.

In fact, its exact borders are classified. But what can't be seen by neighbors or passers-by can probably be heard.

In 2010, the base opened its Combat Center at Range 800 to train units on counter-IED (improvised explosive devices) warfare—teaching them the "5 Cs" (confirm, clear, cordon, check, control).

A resourceful insurgent can make a bomb out of nearly anything, without it even looking like a bomb. That's what accounted for 85% of deaths of U.S. troops and our allies during Operation Enduring Freedom.

Marines learn marksmanship here, too—in the indoor simulator, which provides a safe way for inexperienced shooters to achieve proficiency in small arms (pistols, rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers)...

... and proficient shooters to hone their skills.

Another technological advancement that allows for training without the waste of resources (or the risk of, you know, death) is the Combat Convoy Simulator... immersive training environment for drivers, gunners, and passengers in tactical scenarios related to convoy operations in combat.

It's "virtual reality"-type simulations like this that allow civilians to really understand the training that our troops go through, too.

You can even get behind the wheel of the Operator Driver Simulator—and it really feels like you're driving (on a rough road, making sharp turns, etc.).

Fortunately, our simulator shooters weren't using real bullets.

Another part of the 29 Palms base training ground at Camp Wilson is the Egress Trainer.

It's basically a simulation of a scenario in which your vehicle rolls over and you have to get out (or get your fellow troops out)—and it's mandated for all Marines to complete before they enter any "real-world" combat scenarios. (Only a few bases have them, so some Marines have to travel to train.)

It's not exactly that simulated—because they literally flip the thing over.

But it's a controlled environment, even though it doesn't feel that way when you're inside during what they call an "inverted event."

If there's anything that can convince you to wear a seatbelt, it's that.

The 29 Palms Combat Center also houses natural resources—not the least of which are the desert tortoise, a prehistoric spring fed by "underground fossil water" (a.k.a. Surprise Spring), and many prehistoric art panels (petroglyphs and pictographs) created by the indigenous peoples who once occupied the land (Serrano, Mohave, Chemehuevi, Cahuilla tribes, etc.).

The Foxtrot Petroglyph Preserve—a national historic landmark located in the Lava Training Area—is probably the best known, though few ever get to see it. It's federally protected, so the Marines have to preserve it as part of their duty in 29 Palms. The site has been off-limits to live-fire maneuvers since 1973.

Their biggest challenge with the ancient cultural site? Beating back intentional vandalism.

They've got their work cut out for them.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: A Fake Iraq in the Middle of the Mojave Desert
Photo Essay: The Abandoned Morton Air Academy at Gary Field
Photo Essay: The Boneyard at the Former Cal-Aero Flying Academy

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