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RODRIGUEZ RANGE, South Korea — A collection of concrete buildings near the Demilitarized Zone in South Korea has been turned into an imitation Iraqi town to train 2nd Infantry Division soldiers for their mission to the desert.

The town, at Rodriguez Range, includes small farmhouses, high-rise apartment complexes, a mosque, gas station, hospital, school, market, police station and businesses. It is home to more than 60 role players, mostly soldiers from 1st Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, helping train their Iraq-bound comrades from 2nd Brigade.

The role players will live in the town 24 hours a day for the next two weeks. Their world bears a passing resemblance to a surreal Hollywood action movie set. Some are cast as Iraqi civilians, sporting Middle Eastern headgear and laser vests indicating they’ll “die” if accidentally “shot” by soldiers during training. Some are cast as insurgents but are dressed the same as other residents. Others wear blue shirts and carry M-16 rifles, marking them as Iraqi police. Soldiers playing hospital doctors and nurses wear white.

Then there are the starring roles: the mayor, police chief and the mosque’s imam.

Three times daily, they all interact with units practicing “cordon and knock” operations: cordoning off several buildings, then searching them for weapons and insurgents.

Maj. Phil Brooks, an observer controller from the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., said the Rodriguez Range exercise “simulates the cities in the area they are going to. We are here to replicate potential situations units might encounter and missions they might be tasked to do in that area.”

It sounds simple, but once the role players get involved, following instructions from observer controllers running the exercises, things can get complicated. Observer controllers can direct role players to attack units with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), improvised explosive devices (IEDs), suicide vests, car bombs and sniper rifles.

Units being trained must deal with the attacks without getting distracted from their cordon- and-knock mission.

A key to executing the mission successfully is working with village “leaders,” such as the mayor, imam and police chief, trainers said. Because the “Iraqis” cannot understand English, soldiers must use translators.

“While they are doing all this,” Brooks said, “they are being trained on rules of engagement, cultural awareness, how to react to the civilians to keep them calm as they search the houses, casualty evacuation, staying offensive minded, and maintenance of vehicles and equipment.”

Role-players said they also find the training exciting. Pfc. Matthew Hirsh of 5th Battalion, 5th Air Defense Artillery Regiment, so far has played a civilian and a policeman.

“The raids in the afternoon are the most fantastic. Usually ... they set up a barrier and us civilians have to come out of prayer and we are trying to go home, but they have blocked the way because there are suspected insurgents around our homes,” he said.

Role players react to culturally insensitive behavior by the soldiers, Hirsh said.

“Some of the them point their weapons at the mosque, and that is a no-no. They have never shot the mosque, luckily, because that would cause quite a bit of trouble. When they detain us for no apparent reason, we get upset because usually it’s an innocent person trying to get home,” he said.

Things can get heated, Hirsh said.

“One day we threw a pallet on the concertina wire to break through the line. We are acting and doing our part to stress out the soldiers. I get really involved with it. I can kind of see certain scenarios of how it would happen and how a person would feel. We as ‘Iraqis’ are not supposed to understand what is going on unless our police chief tells us,” he said.

Another role player, Cpl. Jessica Hubbard of 2nd ID’s Public Affairs Office, is playing an “International Broadcasting Company” reporter but everyone calls her “CNN.”

“It definitely feels like a wartime exercise. They really tackle people and they really take people out on stretchers,” she said. “The role players are very serious, and the soldiers treat it as such.”

Role-playing is a bit like being an actor in a movie, she said.

“I’m not just an extra. I am more like a subsidiary character,” said Hubbard, who said she hopes to direct her own films one day.

Company A, 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment found out just how complicated things can get during cordon-and-knock training on Wednesday.

As the soldiers approached the “town,” a Muslim call to prayer blared from the mosque loudspeaker and civilians filled the streets.

When an IED was discovered soon after the unit arrived at the search area, Iraqi civilians loitered near the device acting as if they were unaware of the danger they faced. When soldiers attempted to roll out a barbed wire barrier to set up the cordon, civilians surrounded them and pushed the wire into a well.

During the next hour, pandemonium reigned as the soldiers were attacked by a sniper, an IED, a suicide bomber and an RPG.

Company A commander Capt. Eric Greek, one of the observer controllers, advised units to avoid distractions around them and stay focused on their primary missions.

Greek said the 1-9 soldiers reacted well to the RPG attack and dealt well with the Iraqi police.

Spc. David Deem, for instance, was ordered into a building thought to shelter an RPG shooter.

“We stormed the building in an assault team. I was looking for movement and looking for weapons. You have to be careful not to shoot civilians. We found the guy with the RPG hiding behind a window, and we took him down peacefully and detained him,” Deem said.

During all the excitement, 2nd Lt. Kevin Morris, appointed Company A’s civil affairs officer two days ago, kept in communication with the “Iraqi leaders” through an interpreter. Morris said the “police chief,” whom Morris sought out at the operation’s start, “was a lot of help” in controlling Iraqi civilians.

The training, Morris said, “opened a lot of eyes.”

At first, he said, “a lot of us wanted to approach it as a military mission” only. “But it doesn’t always work like that when you have to deal with civilian police officers and civilians all around you.”

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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.
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