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Marines to alter Bellows training site in Hawaii

HONOLULU — The mission to Afghanistan for Hawaii infantry Marines is gone, and so are the 50 to 85 Afghan role players who once populated a $42 million "infantry immersion trainer," a military version of a Hollywood set with fake buildings, markets, red poppies, barking dogs, "avatar" people projected on walls and 20 smell generators pumping out the aroma of everything from fresh-baked bread to decomposing bodies.

The Marines are changing with the times — especially in the Pacific with the military's "pivot" here — and so is the high-tech immersion trainer at Marine Corps Training Area Bellows.

Signs, markets and simulated crops including poppies, grapes and pomegranates common in Af­ghani­stan all likely will be switched out as part of a $280,000 makeover reflecting new regional priorities, officials said.

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The corps said new signs will be in Taga­log, Mandarin, Indonesian and Korean.

Hawaii Marines with the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, who are heading to Okinawa, Japan, at the end of the year — instead of southern Af­ghani­stan as in years past — will face Korean role players when they go through training at Bellows, according to the Marines.

"The Southwest-Asia atmospherics at (Bellows) will be updated and be more representative of the Asia-Pacific area," Marine Corps Base Hawaii said in a statement.

"We're not going to put in fake palm trees or fake triple canopy (jungle)," said Dan Geltmacher, a retired Marine and range and training area manager for the Marine Corps base.

What Bellows will continue to have is 1,149 acres of thick brush and the training grounds spread among 87 structures with 20 avatar projection rooms, and 342 cameras watching the action.

"Marine Corps Training Area Bellows is the quintessential training area for Hawaii-based Marines," the base said. "It will continue to be used as a military operations in urban terrain facility, which allows not only Marines but other services and state and federal agencies to train in a developing-nation urban environment."

With the Marine Corps' renewed focus on the Pacific, the service is looking at the possibility of augmenting its main jungle training capabilities now centered at the Jungle Warfare Training Center in Okinawa.

Where it might do so remains a question mark.

"The Marine Corps is gathering data and exploring options, but it's too early to discuss possible courses of action," the Corps said.

Some individual to company-level training specific to jungle warfare can be accomplished at Bellows, and small-scale jungle warfare training will continue to take place at the Army's Kahuku and Kawailoa training areas, officials said.

Waikane Valley, which was considered for a return to jungle training in 2002, was found to have too much unexploded ordnance. A cleanup continues there.

The Corps said it has used Iraqi, Afghan and Asia-Pacific nationalities as role players at Bellows since 2006. The immersion trainer, which debuted in October 2011, built on a series of mock Afghan villages that were fashioned from shipping containers and were arrayed along dusty gravel roads in Bellows.

Training events now last about 10 to 14 days, and battalion-level exercises incorporate 50 to 85 role players. Officials said SpecPro Technical Services has the contract for role players.

Geltmacher, the range and training manager, said Afghans who lived on the mainland were brought in two to three times a year over the past several years to be role players.

They were American citizens or permanent residents and stayed in hotels here off the job, the Corps said.

"It definitely gives you the feeling of being in an Afghan village," Sgt. Scott Whittington said of the training in 2011. "Those little doors into the shops, people hanging out — it's like no detail was left out."

Including battle.

On one past training run-through, two hulking Marine Corps vehicles pulled into the Afghan town square and were greeted by a noise-making roadside bomb that detonated nearby, throwing debris into the air; a simulated rocket-propelled grenade streaking past on a guy wire; and blank gunfire raking their position as a fighter shouted "Allahu akbar (God is great)!"

Another indication of the realism is a recent SpecPro job ad for an "amputee role player" who will play the role of a "combat wound victim within a realistic village or town" at the Marine Corps base.

Geltmacher said the wall-projected avatar people can be reprogrammed for other nationalities. The signage and markets will be changed over the next year, he said.

The upgrade is being done as part of an "atmospherics refresh" that's scheduled every two years and would have taken place anyway to replace worn-out set dressings, he said. The Bellows trainer was the last of three similar facilities established for each of the three Marine Expeditionary Forces, with the others at Camp Pendleton, Calif., and Camp Lejeune, N.C.

Geltmacher said a key portion of the training — cultural interaction — can be accomplished regardless of the physical environment.

The immersion training doesn't always end with a roadside bomb or firefight — depending on how the Marines interact with local residents.

"What we've seen, and the reason we have immersive training now, is that the first 30 days (in another country) is that magic 30 days," Geltmacher said. "If you can live through your first 30 days in a (counterinsurgency) environment or in a combat environment, you are likely to survive the rest of that deployment, because you don't have your act together in the first 30 days. Our goal is to make their first 30 days in combat happen at Marine Corps Training Area Bellows."
 

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