News: Playing their role is no game
Story by Staff Sgt. Michel Sauret
By Staff Sgt. Michel Sauret, 354th MPAD
FORT IRWIN, Calif. – As Soldiers entered the village of Ertebat Shar, market vendors roamed the street shouting at one another in a foreign tongue, selling fruit, oil lamps, even goats.
Various market shops stretched the length of the main avenue into the village center. Ahead, an overhead pass framed a woman’s statue on one side and a mosque with a blue dome and a crescent moon on the other.
An explosion went off, leaving behind a smoking shell of a humvee, carrying a boom that Soldiers felt in their chest. Two Soldiers went down, shrieking for help; each missing a leg and covered in blood.
Within seconds, chaos took over, making it hard to distinguish innocent bystanders from insurgents.
The blood that flowed from the amputees on the ground was fake. The shots fired were blanks. The villagers and terrorists just role players in costumes. But for this training exercise, every element was orchestrated to build a world of realism.
“The Army’s goal is to make this as realistic as possible … When you go out to the (villages) … there are insurgents, there are (explosives) planted, there’s just a lot of people … How do you sort all those out?” said Lt. Col. Burk Voigt, an assistant contracting officer’s rep for the U.S. Army Intelligence & Security Command.
Voigt currently works on Fort Irwin, Calif., to provide linguists and role players to train with Soldiers.
To bring realism to the max, the National Training Center here built a miniature Afghanistan in the middle of the Mohave Desert. This pretend Afghani world features a handful of small villages with mosques, market places, hotels and nearby combat bases plotted along the map.
These villages provide Hollywood-quality stages complete with pyrotechnics to prepare troops for combat, but they also bring U.S. Soldiers face-to-face with the culture they will encounter overseas.
Cultural challenges include anything from using common courtesies, understanding gender roles, showing respect, what hand gestures to avoid and the importance of Islam in the Middle East.
To accomplish that, NTC employs roughly 400 actors to inhabit their mock villages around Fort Irwin. Roughly half are Iraqi and Afghani natives who split the role of mayors, police officers, soldiers, villagers and even insurgents.
NTC populates between six and eight villages much in the way Hollywood casts a movie set. Some linguists play the leading roles while others act as “fillers.”
Every role works to create an extra layer of realism for training.
“Even the generic role players are taught lines of (the local language), so when you go out, they’re going to … start squawking at you, and you don’t have a clue what they’re saying,” said Voigt. “Are they saying something hostile? Are they saying, ‘Hey Soldier boy, there’s an IED right around the corner’? Are they saying, ‘Buy my bread’? You don’t know,” said Voigt.
That’s why it’s so important for deploying Soldiers to get that experience here.
“We try to help the U.S. Military to get better and better (for) when they go to Afghanistan and also for the people of Afghanistan who live in the villages, to make it easier for them,” said one of the linguists who goes by the name of Jamal.
Because of security reasons, some role players prefer their full names not be disclosed. Many of the major players go through strict background checks to work and train with the U.S. Military.
“When (Soldiers) know about our culture, (they) go over there and mingle and get along,” Jamal said.
To push the realism to the max, NTC planners hire a lot of Iraqi and Afghani role players, rather than using just Americans in middle-eastern clothes who barely know the language.
“Clearly the military is directing most of the scenarios, but the whole realism that NTC is striving for … would be defeated if the whole insurgency was white Anglo-Saxon Protestants walking around,” Voigt said.
When playing their role, linguists are not allowed to speak any English with the Soldiers. Sometimes they like to have some fun with the troops to make their interaction harder.
“We play dumb, stupid sometimes (when playing the role of Afghani forces) like we don’t know nothing. We’re supposed to play lazy and see if they react to that,” said Jamal.
In turn, some Soldiers will lose their patience with their Iraqi or Afghani counterparts. That’s part of the learning curve, to keep their cool and work through these struggles. Some of these Soldiers will deploy overseas and train Afghani and Iraqi forces directly. The goal is for those forces to safeguard their own land without the help of the U.S. Military. They will need to overcome the cultural barriers and find a way to make the training stick.
“There’s a language gap, a cultural gap, and there is a training gap,” said Jamal. “We’re supposed to (act) like … the U.S. Army is in our country, and we’re asking them to help us … so we can be side by side fighting the enemies.”
When a training cycle begins, role players work for NTC for about four weeks and then move on to other training bases. At NTC, they live in villages for two weeks or longer, sometimes cooking their own food, brewing their tea and making themselves at home. Voigt said that some will even invite Soldiers over to their ‘homes’ to offer them tea or food, which is how hospitable Iraqis and Afghans truly are overseas.
“We teach them the language, some words, so when they go over there, they know how to communicate somehow,” said Jamal.
As the Soldiers interact with the actors, they get a first-hand experience of what it will be like to negotiate with community leaders, train their security forces and build strong relationships with the people.
“At the end of the mission, they always come shake our hand saying, ‘Thank you for doing this,’ and sometimes they even speak Farsi with us,” said Sal, another of the contracted linguists.
In most cases, Soldiers live out in the combat bases out in the desert for two weeks and interact daily with the nearest village. By the final week, the real world and the pretend world begin to mesh. Village mayors come to company and platoon leaders with needs: water, fertilizer, food, protection … and in turn the Soldiers work to build trust and gain information on enemies in the area.
“It just shows that we did okay on the mission, because before they walked in, they didn’t know nothing, and now in the end they speak a little bit of our language or culture … so when they’re out there, they know at least what to do,” he said.
Like many other linguists at NTC, Sal and Jamal were born in Afghanistan.
Unfortunately for them, they had to leave the land they called home at an early age.
Sal escaped Afghanistan with his family in 1983 when he was just five years old. He doesn’t have fond, childhood memories of growing up. What he remembers is a state of warfare: a country invaded by the Soviets and a five-day and five-night walk from his hometown of Kabul on his escape to Pakistan with his family. There, they lived in hope that freedom might return to their homeland, but even as the communist invasion crumbled, what followed wasn’t any better: a state of civil war and eventually a Taliban takeover.
“It’s a hard life over there,” he said.
Sal lived in Pakistan only a few years until he moved again with his family to the U.S. at the age of nine. Eventually he made it to California. In college he studied medicine in hope to become a paramedic, travel around the world and hoped to visit Afghanistan again. But because he didn’t have field experience in California, law restrictions thwarted his plans.
Then a friend told him about linguists working for the U.S. Military. It gave him the opportunity to play the role he never had a chance to live out as an adult: an Afghan citizen, or police officer … even an Afghan Soldier.
Much like Sal, Jamal also remembers his five-day walk to Pakistan with his family. He was 14 at that time, and eventually immigrated to the U.S.
“Before all of this war thing got started, before the Russians came in, we loved it. We were happy. We were living a low budget life, but we were happy … At least we were free. We didn’t have to worry about not walking across the street … The only choice left to us was to get out of there,” said Jamal.
Both role players are now U.S. citizens, but they still consider Kabul part of their home. Now they serve in the same virtual Afghan Army, something they were never able to do in real life as war pushed them away. Their hope is to prepare Soldiers deploy to restore freedom in their land because they were not able to do so themselves.
“We’re doing this to help the U.S. Military to go back and make a difference, and make it the way it was 30 or 40 years ago. And if that will happen, man, we’ll do whatever it takes,” Jamal said.