Preparing for war: Reservists train at Fort Hunter Liggett
FORT HUNTER LIGGETT, Calif. — A car raced toward the entrance of a U.S. Army camp and swerved in a dust-raising U-turn as rifles fired from open windows.
Two American soldiers fell to the ground. Their fellow soldier shot at the fleeing car, but failed to stop its escape.
It’s the kind of drive-by assault that can happen any time in Afghanistan, where U.S. military casualties continue to mount with 36 deaths last month.
But this was just a simulation, part of the training for Army reservists and National Guard members at this fort 160 miles south of San Francisco. More than 4,300 troops are spending June 9-29 in the heat of Fort Hunter Liggett, a rugged expanse of mountains, rivers and desert scrub covering 660,000 acres.
They are in the third year of a five-year cycle that will culminate, for many, in deployment to the most dangerous spots in the world.
Afghanistan could be among the destinations, even as the United States draws down its presence there.
Lt. Col. Whitney Miley of Twin Falls is a key figure in the troops’ preparation. A special education teacher at Canyon Ridge High School in civilian life, Miley helped design this summer’s simulated battles. She also directs the actions of opposing forces as they ambush U.S. convoys or threaten soldiers guarding camp gates with suicide bombings.
Though the exercises are conducted with blanks instead of live ammunition, the lessons are deadly serious.
“We are not playing games out here,” said Staff Sgt. Robert Van Tuinen. “We are using 100 percent real equipment and this is the major training before they go to combat. Our mission is to prepare a force that is ready.”
That means being wary of everyone, even foreign nationals who appear friendly. Two of them approached a simulated camp one afternoon as guards rushed toward them with M-16s poised. The men claimed to be workers in the camp kitchen.
“Must go work,” one said. “Be late work.”
The soldiers pointed M-16s at the men. They screamed for them to halt and raise their arms high, which they did. Another soldier patted down the potential enemies while they remained at gunpoint. Only after several minutes of searches and discussion were they allowed into camp.
Van Tuinen explained that, in war, you trust no one. Maybe they were camp cooks who had been paid off by insurgents and were now suicide bombers, he said. Maybe their earlier cooperation with American troops was just a ruse.
Even trucks returning from native villages where lumber is purchased are stopped to be investigated. They might have been attacked on the way back to camp and are now commandeered by enemy forces.
That kind of convoy ambush happened in one mock scenario. Snipers hid behind trees and amid brush beside a rutted dirt road while waiting for a procession of U.S. Humvees and trucks. Staff Sgt. Chris Grant of Boise explained what was about to happen to the convoy, known as Snake Six.
“Four guys will pop up and fire,” he said. “We want to see how Snake Six responds.”
Without warning, the crack of rifles rang out. The Humvees pulled to a stop along the road to return fire. Gunshots continued until the American forces turned back their attackers and could proceed again.
Grant was pleased with his soldiers’ response.
“The goal is for them to react quickly,” he said. “We just want to make sure they react, that they do something. A lot of times new guys get that deer-in-the-headlights look.”
Leaders of simulated U.S. units and their enemy attackers write a report card each day outlining what went well and what went wrong. That information is shared with troops to help them learn.
“Hopefully, the training unit can find any weaknesses and plug the holes,” Grant said.
Miley, of Twin Falls, liked the way her opposing forces played their role.
“The drive-by shooting went well,” she said. “We also had a reconnaissance on foot and from my standpoint it looked like the unit was doing the right thing.”
Villagers approached a military camp en masse in another exercise. They demanded food and water from the U.S. troops, but that message was lost in the chaos of rising voices. Things escalated as soldiers pointed guns and demanded the villagers retreat. It sent some villagers into a fury, prompting shots from the troops who feared for their safety.
A couple of villagers writhed on the dirt after being shot.
“I wasn’t killin’ nobody,” a soldier said defensively to another. “I was shooting legs.”
After the melee, Staff Sgt. Scott Larson of Boise assessed the action.
“I talked with them about lethal force,” he said, adding that warning shots should be fired into the air rather than the ground. “You can have a ricochet and hit an innocent civilian. In real life, you’re going to put them on the ground with hands behind their back.”
Use of tear gas also might have quelled the situation, he added.
Overall, Larson gave the soldiers’ effort a passing grade.
“I wouldn’t be afraid to work with that unit,” he said. “I think they’re good to go.”