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Sgt. First Class Brian Hester, from Mount Sterling, N.Y, Company B’s platoon sergeant also known as “Ammo Can” by his men, tightens a strap on an armored Humvee before a Wednesday night’s standard 12-hour mission.
Sgt. First Class Brian Hester, from Mount Sterling, N.Y, Company B’s platoon sergeant also known as “Ammo Can” by his men, tightens a strap on an armored Humvee before a Wednesday night’s standard 12-hour mission. (Lisa Burgess / S&S)

BAGHDAD — Whether it’s in the California deserts of Fort Irwin or in the woods at the Combat Maneuver Training Center in Hohenfels, Germany, almost no one who goes through a rotation at one of the U.S. military’s training centers ever wins against the opposing force, or “OpFor.”

The “OpFor” are experts at the terrain — also known in Armyspeak as “The Box,” where they work every daily. These soldiers dress, speak, and act like insurgents, probing units for weaknesses by setting up ambushes, mock-poisoning water supplies, or just stalking a particular group and capturing it in the middle of the night, when exhaustion sets in.

So when word came down that some OpFor units had been tapped for Operation Iraqi Freedom II, the military community instantly began a buzzing debate.

One one hand, why wouldn’t the Army send soldiers who spend all their time thinking and acting like insurgents against the real thing?

On the other hand, units tapped for Iraq or Afghanistan often go through an OpFor rotation. So who would train these deploying soldiers if the OpFor troops weren’t available?

Presidential Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry is one of the critics of deploying the OpFor, saying the troops need their expertise.

“People have been sent over there without the training necessary, with too little training,” Kerry told Stripes.

“We even have our top trainers who have been deployed to go over there rather than be where they can train people.”

Among the OpFor units currently in Iraq:

• Company A and Company B, 1st Battalion, 509th Airborne Infantry Regiment from the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La.

• Company C, 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment, from Fort Drum, N.Y.; 58th Combat Engineer Company from Fort Irwin.

• Another opposing forces unit — Company A, 1st Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment from Hohenfels, Germany — deployed last week to Afghanistan.

Although the OpFor units attached to the 10th Mountain Division in Baghdad have only been doing combat operations in Iraq since mid-July, their commander says the soldiers are doing yeoman service.

“These guys are great,” said Col. Mark Milley, the 10th Mountain’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team commander in Iraq.

“They are extra well-trained, and well-disciplined,” Milley said. “They are fighting a battle using tactics, techniques and procedures, and they are very, very good at just this type of fighting we are doing over here.”

The desert deployment was welcomed by the OpFor soldiers, according to Sgt. First Class Brian Hester, from Mount Sterling, N.Y, platoon sergeant for Company B, 1st Battalion, 509th Airborne Infantry Regiment.

“We were extremely frustrated” not to be fighting a “real” enemy, said Hester.

“People were literally fighting over spots” in the two companies that were tapped for deployment,” Hester said during a 12-hour Wednesday night patrol of his company’s turf near Baghdad International Airport.

“Almost everyone volunteered to go,” Hester said.

“For every man over here, I guarantee there are two or three at Fort Polk chomping at the bit to take their place.”

One soldier who got a coveted deployment spot was Pfc. Brett Erickson, 18.

“I begged to be here,” Erickson, who is with 2nd platoon. “All my buddies were coming, and I wanted to be with them.”

But Erickson, of Hilo, Hawaii, had only benn with the unit for one month before he was called to Iraq, “And they wanted to take experienced people,” he said.

Finally, Erickson’s platoon sergeant changed his mind.

“I think I asked so much, he just got kind of annoyed,” Erickson said.

Like Erickson, Pfc. Carey Seaborn, 22, from Mount Juliet, Tenn., is a newbie.

Seaborn, who is with the 58th Combat Engineer Company, has been in the Army for just 19 months. But Seaborn said he when he found out he would be deployed to Iraq at the end of April, it was welcome news.

“I felt it was time to do our part,” he said.

Now that they are settling into Iraq, “Our platoon is one of the tightest groups of guys I have ever been around,” said Staff Sgt. John Wilbanks of Picayune, Miss., with the 2nd platoon.

“We know we have a job to do, but we keep it fun.”

Yet although the OpFor units are close-knit, “they fit in well” with the other soldiers of the 10th Mountain, Milley said.

“I think they [are] a real value-add to the brigade.” Milley said.

“We’re very proud of them.”

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