A curious “citizen” in the fictional town of Kamenica at the Hohenfels Combat Maneuver Training Center in Germany peers into a Humvee on Thursday as soldiers work on a training exercise.

A curious “citizen” in the fictional town of Kamenica at the Hohenfels Combat Maneuver Training Center in Germany peers into a Humvee on Thursday as soldiers work on a training exercise. (Ben Murray / S&S)

HOHENFELS, Germany — Planners at the Combat Maneuver Training Center go to great lengths to create the elaborate illusion that soldiers on a U.S. base in Germany are actually performing patrols and searching villages in Kosovo.

Road signs direct members from the “Serbian border” to a town called Kamencia, where the village center is busy with what appear to be local residents, smoking, talking and going about their business. The town even has a mayor who didn’t speak English, a local police force and a popular cafe.

Those are the kinds of details that are the specialty of the 7th Army Training Command, which sets up and operates the complex scenarios at Hohenfels designed to prepare soldiers for missions around the world.

Using a process that closely mirrors the making of a movie — including a script, principal actors, extras, props, sets and even camera crews — the 7th ATC concocts situations that are meant to seem random and unscripted. But when viewed from behind the scenes, the training exercises are revealed to be epic efforts in up-to-the-minute planning, said Maj. Lance Headrick, a scenario planner for the 7th ATC.

The point, after all, is to drill soldiers in techniques and tactics specific to the upcoming mission, he said, which means they can’t just be turned loose to duke it out with Hohenfels’ resident opposition force, the 1st Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment — also known as OPFOR.

“It’s got to be orchestrated or you’ll have mayhem out there,” said Capt. Charlie Pelham, another Hohenfels planner.

With that in mind, the Hohenfels planners create training situations detailed enough to specify what kind of information should be leaked to a platoon to lure it to an OPFOR sniper, what position the gunman should fire from if the bait is taken, and what the ratio of women to men on the street should be at the time.

Some missions are harder to simulate than others, planners said. For the unit currently in “the box,” a brigade of California-based National Guardsmen from the 40th Infantry Division (Mechanized), conditions of the German countryside are ideal — the 40th is headed for a rotation in Camp Bondsteel, Kosovo.

But for elements of the 1st Armored Division, scheduled to train in the snowy, wooded hills of Hohenfels in late February before deploying to Iraq, planners were quick to point out that they can only “replicate” situations soldiers will likely see downrange, not “duplicate” the conditions.

After writing up a complete scenario for a particular unit, the planners pass the reins of a training rotation to the exercise control group, a team whose job is “keeping the whole story line straight,” by acting as a faux higher command for the soldiers in training, said Lt. Col. Chuck Mitchell, chief of operations for the exercise control.

The control team gives orders to the troops in the box, acts as the intelligence center for both sides of the fight and even poses as the liaison for ersatz neighboring countries. If a commander wants to call the “Greek government” from Kemencia to coordinate a troop movement, Mitchell said, it’s his staff that picks up the phone.

Additionally, the control group serves as the nerve center for many of the other various teams involved in the rotations, such as training advisers, Army photographers and even the training center’s own fake news broadcaster, Global News Network.

With so many players in the game, Mitchell said, once in a while a scenario will start to implode, and the control team will have to put it back on course through information leaked through role-players on the battlefield or new orders to the men in the box.

But even if the original story does start to break down, the team can adapt the scenario to make sure a unit still gets all the training it needs before deploying, Mitchell said.

Civilian role players add unpredictibility

One of the most beguiling obstacles for troops in “the box” at the Combat Maneuver Training Center in Hohenfels, Germany, is the proliferation of the center’s COBs, or civilians on the battlefield.

Hired by the hundred specifically for each training rotation at Hohenfels, COBs are part of the real-as-we-can-make-it landscape used to emulate one of the most unpredictable elements U.S. soldiers will encounter on a mission — everyday people.

Headed by a gruff civilian employee named Tim Good, referred to as The Godfather by some of his subordinates, the COBs play a variety of roles in the training scenarios, from acting as obstinate mayors of fictional towns to helpful interpreters or just drunken civilians.

Good, who has run the program for 11 years, said he goes to great pains to make the role-players appear as authentic as possible, making sure they dress and interact as civilians of the country in question would, and even that they attack soldiers with the right kinds of foreign weapons.

Last week, more than 300 COBs inhabited the training center, said Good, who was to begin living full time in the box once the continuous training regimen — known as the exercise, or “ex days” — started this weekend.

The population is specially chosen to include a large number of trained linguists — 80 interpreters, according to Good — to assist the troops in the fictional towns, But Good delighted more in showing off the troublemakers in the crowd.

At the training town of Kamencia, Good pointed out a COB simulator adding a twist to his performance by pretending to be blind, allowing him to wander too close to a pair of Humvees, where a curious woman took advantage of the distracted troops and got inside one of the vehicles to warm up for a few minutes.

“Pregnant” women, men with heart conditions, confused civilians yelling in foreign languages — today’s COBs are a vast improvement over the original role players Good used to employ, who were just borrowed American soldiers wearing their own clothes, he said.

— Ben Murray

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