About Anti-IED Training: An Exercise In Life Or Death
By Team Infidel on October 17th, 2007
"It's not quite as good as being at one of the combat training centers," says Dennis Tighe, deputy director of the Army's Combined Arms Center for Training. "But it was as good as we could make it given the time and resource constraints."
Then there are the equipment problems. The conventional Humvees that soldiers use for training at Fort Irwin were replaced in Iraq more than two years ago by a new, armored version that is thousands of pounds heavier, making it more unwieldy and prone to rollovers. But as the Pentagon struggles to provide enough armored Humvees just for units in combat, there aren't enough for training.
Now, many of the armored Humvees in Iraq are being replaced by the more IED-resistant MRAP vehicles. But there are no plans to move them into the training system.
Lt. Col. Tom Perison, a training chief at Army Forces Command at Fort McPherson, Ga., says all soldiers get some exposure to armored Humvees and other equipment as they rotate through Kuwait on their way to Iraq. "Certainly, if you (train on) the exact same thing you're taking to theater, that's the best thing," Perison says. But equipment has to go where "it's most needed," in Iraq.
There's evidence that the services' increased emphasis on IED training makes a difference. In the early months of the war, nearly every IED that exploded caused casualties, but today only about one in six IED detonations produce a death or injury, the Pentagon says. U.S. troops detect about half of all IEDs before they go off.
In November 2004, Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., visited Camp Shelby in his district where National Guard soldiers get final training before heading to Iraq.
Taylor pulled aside a soldier in a Humvee and asked whether he was training with jammers. "He kind of looked at me and said, 'Huh?' " Taylor recalls. "So I said, 'Jammers: The things that block the signals they use to set off IEDs.' And he said, 'Oh, yeah,' and pointed inside the Humvee to a cigar box on the dashboard with 'JAMMER' written on it."
Much would change in the next two years. The base's technicians fitted Humvees with plywood sides to simulate the restricted sight lines and shooting space of the armored versions.
They set up a mock Iraqi village and built fake IEDs that explode with small charges when soldiers fail to detect them — a big change from earlier years, when the fakes lacked the smoke and sound of the real thing. This year, the camp also received three dozen "surrogate" jammers.
But Congress remains concerned about resources at Shelby and other training sites across the services.
"Equipment and personnel shortfalls in non-deployed units limit their ability to fully train for combat," said a congressional staff report prepared in September 2006 for Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., who now chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee. A bill the House passed this year on a bipartisan vote authorized a $250 million increase in Pentagon spending on training. That bill must be reconciled with a Senate version, which also called for increases in training budgets. The bills are being reconciled in conference.
Since 2006, the Pentagon has dramatically expanded an office called the Joint IED Defeat Organization, or JIEDDO, which has spent $500 million on IED training initiatives in the past two years. Among other things, the office has developed simulated jammers, IED "smart cards" that give troops tips on how to spot and handle different types of devices, and websites where troops can get the latest information on IEDs. JIEDDO also has helped funnel intelligence on IEDs from Iraq to units at home that are training for deployment.
"JIEDDO has an extraordinary flexibility to react quickly to emerging needs, including training," because it isn't subject to rules requiring that the services plan their spending far in advance, says Col. Michael Mahoney, JIEDDO's operations chief.
These days, training centers get the latest IED intelligence from Iraq on a near-daily basis.
At Fort Irwin, trainers "get (information from war zones) on training Day 2, and on training Day 5, it's in the (exercise) rotation," says Maj. Brent Dixon, a training coordinator at the Army's Combined Arms Center. Some changes are as simple as adding a new type of IED to the "petting zoo," a hands-on display where soldiers study explosive devices used by insurgents.
The bigger goal is to make training at Fort Irwin — with its mock Iraqi villages and 110-degree heat — even more realistic. Native Arabic speakers are hired by the Army to play roles as insurgents, as Iraqi troops and as bystanders during training exercises. They interact with soldiers training to interrogate troublemakers or to search Iraqi homes for IED components.
"This is the best training in the world," says Col. Steven Salazar, who heads operations at the training center. The emphasis on IEDs, he adds, "is huge."
It will be up to the Pentagon's inspector general to sort through the conflicting accounts to determine whether better IED training would have saved Stephen Castner.
Sensenbrenner called the soldier's complaints about training "chillingly prophetic." In a statement, the congressman said, "No American soldier should be sent to Iraq with inadequate training."
In the initial investigation into Castner's death, several soldiers spoke of confusion in the convoy after the IED blew his Humvee into the roadside marsh. Castner's crewmates, two of whom also were injured, struggled to get him out of the vehicle, but he was stuck. After other troops from the convoy returned and pulled him out, they did not put a tourniquet above the deep shrapnel wound on his thigh.
One soldier in the Humvee with Castner — the Pentagon blacked out his name in the report — told investigators in a sworn statement that he would have been better prepared if he'd had "training on what to do when the vehicle is in water, and more medical training."
The initial report on the attack, written by Col. James Haun, a commander with an Army transportation unit, found that training was not a factor. "The soldiers at the scene reacted by the book," Haun's report said. "There is no relationship to Spc. Castner's death and any training he could receive or any training by the other soldiers that might have saved him."
Castner's father, a lawyer in Cedarburg, Wis., disputes that, citing witness statements, conversations with his son's crewmates and lapses in the investigation.
"There were a lot of training failures," he says. "The commanders lost command and control. … They relied on extremely undisciplined, helter-skelter broadcasts over the radio to make assumptions that were totally incorrect about whether all vehicles were accounted for.
"If they'd handled it properly, they would have been back (at the explosion site) in just a few minutes, there would have been people there who could have given Stephen proper medical attention, and the medevac would have been there a lot sooner."
It's unclear when the inspector general will finish its review. But the elder Castner, who supports the war, says it's important to see the probe through to its conclusion.
"I want to make sure the right lessons are learned from Stephen's death," he says. "Our mission in Iraq is important, but we have a responsibility to make sure that our (troops) are trained and prepared properly. That's our obligation."