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New Fort Story training range creates combat scenarios for SEALs

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — When you're a Navy SEAL on the front lines of urban combat, the bad guys might be anywhere: inside an elementary school classroom, behind a soda machine at the bus station, cowering next to a hospital-room bed.

They might even hide in the bathroom.

Anything is possible, which is why the Navy special warfare community is excited about the $11.5 million training range dedicated Monday at Fort Story. The facility features 52 rooms spread over 26,500 square feet, an area about the size of a grocery store. Groups of local SEALs will use it as a live-fire range — the ammunition in their guns will be real, even if their targets are life-sized cut-outs zipping across a built-in track.

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The walls are made of half-inch steel plates covered with a layer of rubber and a few inches of Styrofoam. The steel and rubber trap bullets and keep them from ricocheting. The decorative Styrofoam layer, created by a California company that used to design Hollywood sets, creates the vibe of a third-world country.

The range — often referred to as a "kill house" — is divided into four zones by steel doors, meaning four groups can train simultaneously. Scenarios include a mosque, bank, post office, market and residential compound. In one section, nine chairs painted in primary hues sit behind desks in an elementary school classroom. Other rooms are more sinister, like a torture chamber accessed through a bus station wall.

Many of the details were taken from actual raids over the past decade, said Capt. Tim Szymanski, the commodore of Naval Special Warfare Group Two.

"I don't think there's anything comparable in the continental United States," Szymanski said during a brief ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Instructors will observe from above, using catwalks that criss-cross the building.

Larry Pacifico, who manages the complex, said instructors will control each scenario using an iPad to adjust the lighting and movement of the targets. Cameras will record the action, so SEALs will find out where the bullets they fired came to rest, he said, down to specific bones and organs.

For years, Hampton Roads-based SEALs have traveled to a privately owned range in Mississippi for close-quarters combat training, or reserved time at select Army bases with similar ranges. Travel costs and rental fees totaled about $1.6 million a year for Szymanski's teams.

Szymanski, who oversees SEAL teams 2, 4 and 8 at nearby Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek, said SEALs spend about 70 percent of their time between deployments away from their families, in training. So giving the men extra time at home fits in with an initiative to provide special operations members more predictability.

Each training cycle used to require three weeks in Mississippi. With the Fort Story range now open, he said, they'll have to be away only for a week.

The new range will allow each one to "spend more time with their head on their own pillow," he said.

The pillows on beds and couches at the range were some of the only props not made of Styrofoam.

Pacifico was particularly proud of a couple of features, including the Styrofoam toilets in a deliberately filthy bathroom. It's rare to find a bathroom scenario in a close-quarters combat range, Pacifico said, but it makes sense: "It's another place where bad guys can hide."

Pacifico said he'll be able to make the training experience even more vivid using "smell generators." Two of the options: rotting meat and third-world bathroom.
 

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