News: Going live: Realistic training takes the fight to the enemy
Story by L.A. Shively
Part one: Drugs, money, violence
An adaptable enemy demands adaptable soldiers and the “train like you fight” mantra has resulted in an unprecedented degree of realism in preparing for combat. This is the first installment in a series looking at the theater immersion concept introduced in 2004 by then-commanding general of First U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré.
CAMP BULLIS, Texas – The twilight calm of a small Mexican village just across the Texas border is shattered by the pleas of a teenage girl hauled into the street by two armed thugs. Wrestling with her captors, she screams, “Papá! Papá! Aayúdame, ayúdame!” or “Help me!”
Forced to her knees in the middle of the street, the girl’s cries are abruptly silenced by the jolt of a bullet entering her skull. Slumping face forward onto the gravel, she is left there for awhile, an example for other villagers defying the drug cartel’s demands. Later, the body of the village police chief’s daughter is carried behind a building and dumped into a ravine.
Kidnapped earlier in the day, the slain girl had no idea her father, who she called to for help, had already been stopped, pulled from his vehicle, shot in the head, and then dismembered. A third villager was hanged by the neck.
Although these execution scenarios are notional events at the conclusion of a two-week exercise on Joint Base San Antonio-Camp Bullis in June for the U.S. Army National Guard’s 71st Battlefield Surveillance Brigade; the reality of the scripted training mirrors the violence facing National Guard soldiers at the border and abroad.
“We have a dual mission – state and federal,” said Maj. Dwight Bryan, referring to the 215 National Guard personnel currently serving with the Texas Joint Counterdrug Task Force and those assisting communities during natural disasters, civil emergencies, and serving overseas.
“The basics of what needs to be done in austere environments is the same,” said Bryan, commander of the 112th Service Support Company and commander of combat training, skills, and the training and evaluation section of the Texas Army National Guard, out of New Braunfels.
“There is not a whole lot of difference between insurgents in Afghanistan and criminal insurgents in, say Honduras or South America. It’s all the same – the way they operate – narco-terrorism. We’re talking about money, drugs, weapons,” said Bryan, a Soldier with 15 years of active duty and three years of inactive duty. The major deployed twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan.
Bryan profiled the characters and scripted the events designed to train Soldiers from units that included a Headquarters and Headquarters Company command and control element, a Charlie Troop 3-124th Cavalry Regiment-Long Range Surveillance detachment, and a multi-function team from the 636th Military Intelligence Battalion.
Adjunct training included fueling and fixing equipment, meal distribution in the field and generator instruction. A water purification unit was used on site and teams were schooled in driving tactical vehicles. Nearly 350 soldiers participated.
Throughout the exercise, command and control received intelligence from observers, established event relevance and formulated plans from which the brigade commander determined appropriate action. The multi-function team trained in the classroom and then collected and processed evidence on scene, administering tactical field interrogations with high value targets.
Realism was a key factor of the training. Costumed role players adhered to detailed character profiles and villagers occupied several cement-block buildings in an urban-terrain section of the Combined Arms Collective Training Facility at JBSA-Camp Bullis.
Cartel members brandished authentic, albeit empty weapons. When the cartel invaded the village, or a notional Special Forces team captured the cartel, gas-powered AK47s roared blue flames proclaiming the advent of hostilities.
“Spanish was the language of choice for Ciudad Akbar,” said 2nd Lt. Victoria Hernandez, a platoon leader with the 636th MIB’s multi-function team. Hernandez, who role-played the village police chief’s daughter, said her captors were in character.
“They were very rough. I was dragged out of the vehicle, kicking and screaming through the street,” said the Edinburgh, Texas, native. Hernandez struggled hard again when she was dragged back onto the street for her notional execution. “When I felt a weapon on my head, that’s when I stopped.”
As the enforcer for the cartel, Sgt. Joseph Parra, with the 71st BFSB, was quite familiar with the underpinnings of his character. Parra assisted with the executions.
“I’m a free agent for hire. If the cartel needs something done, I’m there to do the business for them,” he smirked, adding that he had first-hand experience with the cartel milieu.
As a Drug Enforcement Administration agent, Parra’s father was stationed with his family in Mazatlan, Mexico, where, in 1985, his father’s colleague, fellow DEA agent Enrique "Kiki" Camarena was kidnapped, tortured and murdered. Parra said he was 13 and knew, even at that age, the drug problem was huge.
Parra agreed that realistic training was effective.
“It’s to get a better understanding of what we may face,” the Albuquerque, N.M., native said. “It’s pretty ruthless what these guys are willing to do to get what they need.”
“It gives me insight into the enemy’s mind and how it works,” said Staff Sgt. Daniel Rivera, a “cabo” or corporal in the cartel who kills on command. He said his character would kill rather than be killed or have his family killed.
The 71st BFBS sergeant who hails from Grand Prairie, Texas, did not take pleasure in his role.
“It’s hard to be the bad guy – the blood, the guns, threatening somebody,” Rivera said. “You have to have a whole different personality.”
Rivera said he felt that some sort of psychological change must have occurred in a person who commits the violent crimes he emulated.
“To yell or point a gun at somebody – excessive force? It goes against everything we’ve worked for as Soldiers. It’s kind of scary.”
“It makes me aware of how people are manipulated in this cartel,” said Sgt. Johnny Castillo, whose character believed he was justifying killing others because he was on a mission to give money to the poor.
Castillo, with the 71st BFSB who calls San Antonio home, said the training also brought his soldiers together. “We watch and protect each other and ourselves.”
“Soldiers must have tough, realistic, hands-on, repetitive training until their response is intuitive,” said Honoré in 2004 at the First U.S. Army Commander’s Conference in Atlanta, presenting his vision of theater-immersion training.
Honoré initially incorporated immersion training into mobilization for reserve soldiers going into theater. Currently, it is standard for all soldiers going into combat zones and members of law enforcement agencies.
“By the time they get downrange,” Bryan said, “it’s an easy transition to going live.”