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CAMP HOVEY, South Korea — 2nd Infantry Division soldiers capped several weeks’ training for their Iraq mission with a three-day exercise — Operation Lion Strike — that tested their ability to work across a wide area.

Over the weekend, units from the Iraq-bound 2nd Brigade Combat Team deployed to forward-operating bases at U.S. and South Korean training areas near the Demilitarized Zone.

The exercise called for units to carry out military and civil affairs operations in and around mock towns populated by role players, mostly soldiers from 2nd ID’s 1st Brigade, who acted as Iraqi civilians and officials. Several dozen Iraqis, working for military contractors, also played roles.

2nd Brigade executive officer Lt. Col. Bob Bialek said the exercise capped more than a month’s training for the Iraq-bound soldiers.

“We have gone from individual weapons certification and classes on Iraqi culture to squad, platoon and company exercises. This was the capstone exercise where we put it all together,” he said.

Lion Strike incorporated many of the challenges soldiers likely will face in Iraq, he said.

“There were insurgents out there; we had to clear main supply routes. There were local, tribal and government officials — some neutral, some pro and some are anti-coalition. The soldiers had to engage the role players and try to figure out what was going on,” he said.

Lion Strike was unlike exercises typically staged by the Army, Bialek said.

“In the old days, we would go to the National Training Centre and there would be huge battles involving everybody at one time. That doesn’t work anymore. We have to look at the whole spectrum of what the enemy is doing and outthink him and outfox him,” he said.

One of the units participating in the exercise, 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment, set up a tactical operations center in what was supposed to be an abandoned Iraqi military compound — actually a Camp Hovey motor pool.

The 1-9 was responsible for Area of Operations Colt — which included “Al Ramada” township, a collection of tents near the Camp Hovey rappelling tower, and the town of “Tamin” at Twin Bridges Training Area.

The unit’s first task, early Saturday morning, was to establish observation posts to report on activity in the towns. Then 1-9 soldiers started to clear supply routes in the area.

“We want to make sure that during the hours of limited visibility, insurgents haven’t gone and set up an ambush or put in IEDs (improvised explosive devices),” said Lt. Col. Joseph Southcott, the 1-9 commander.

After that, 1-9 transitioned to patrols into the towns.

At Al Ramada, Company C set up a traffic control point with the aim of searching vehicles coming or going. However, once the checkpoint was set up, Iraqi villagers started a demonstration. Within minutes, villagers were shoving their way through the roadblock and a line of soldiers, who responded by detaining some of the troublemakers.

Demonstrators chanted, “You are not liberators, you are occupiers”; “We have no insurgents in our town”; “All we want is water and electricity” and “Our kids are sick.”

Some of the protesters shoved one of the soldiers trying to control the crowd, Sgt. Joe Romero of Phoenix, but he kept his cool.

“We were just standing our ground and trying not to come through. They were pushing us. We let one guy through so they could detain him,” he said.

Another soldier at the roadblock, Pfc. Russell Raley, from Stockton, Calif., said the female protesters were a big problem, “because you couldn’t detain them.”

That was the first of many incidents that Company C dealt with at Al Ramada over the next three days. The most exciting involved a suicide bomber’s attempt to kill the company commander during a meeting with the town’s mayor.

Sgt. Riccardo Martinez from Chicago thwarted the attack. Martinez spent most of the exercise staffing an observation post at Al Ramada, but he was assigned to pull security for his commander during the meeting with the mayor.

“The bomber was in the crowd and came around a corner. I saw the vest and popped him twice in the head,” he said.

The young soldier indicated the training in South Korea was eerily familiar. During a tour to Iraq with the 82nd Airborne Division, he was involved in a similar incident, he said.

“I shot a couple (of insurgents) over there but they deserved it. We saw them go into a building with AKs (AK-47 machine guns), RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) and mortar tubes,” he said. “They looked like they were preparing to attack.”

When the pair came out of the building, Martinez said, he shot them with a .50-caliber machine gun.

After he returned to the States, the incident haunted him, he said. He suffered panic attacks and could not face going to shopping malls.

“It took a while but once I got to Korea and started meeting people, I let it go. The past is past,” he said.

The man Martinez “saved” during the exercise, Company C commander Capt. Victor Pirak, spent a lot of time meeting with local officials from Al Ramada, trying to find insurgents and weapons caches and dealing with such problems as paying city employees and finding new uniforms and vehicles for the local police.

Pirak said the exercise was very different from the sorts of training he has done in the past.

“It is a lot of learning with some frustration, but a lot of reward when you accomplish what you set out to do. Anything can take you by surprise in an urban environment,” he said.

“You have a mix of good people and people who might be bad. It makes it dangerous. Every soldier has to think about what he is doing.”

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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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