Anti-IED Training: An Exercise In Life Or Death

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
USA Today
October 17, 2007
Pg. 1

Drills Improve, But Not Every Soldier Goes Through Them
By Peter Eisler, Tom Vanden Brook and Blake Morrison, USA Today
FORT IRWIN, Calif. — The troops arrive to pure chaos. The Humvee lies smoking on the road, blown apart by a roadside bomb. One soldier moans on the ground, a leg torn off at the knee. Another slumps unconscious nearby. Iraqis crowd in, pointing and yelling. Snipers lurk on every roof.
Some soldiers secure the area; others provide first aid. They call for support. As they load the injured for evacuation, sniper fire rains down.
Fortunately, the wounded soldiers are only lifelike mannequins. And the entire episode is a training exercise aimed at preparing soldiers for the chief threat they'll face in combat: improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.
A half-hour later, the soldiers listen as an instructor ticks off their mistakes: They failed to stop traffic. They were distracted by the crowd. They didn't clear the scene before snipers got in place.
The anti-IED instruction at Fort Irwin's National Training Center is the best the Army has — a true-to-life piece of the battlefield, mocked up in the Mojave Desert. But tens of thousands of troops have gone to war without this sort of training, a USA TODAY investigation shows.
In the war's early years, troops were deployed with little or no knowledge of IEDs, even as the devices came to account for 60% of combat deaths.
Today, many troops still head to Iraq without the best available training. Three of the 20 Army combat brigades now in Iraq — nearly 15,000 troops — didn't have time to visit Fort Irwin or one of the two other combat training centers where brigades are supposed to do final pre-deployment exercises. Regardless of where they train, most soldiers and Marines still practice without the armored vehicles, electronic equipment and other tools they will rely on to avoid and survive IEDs in combat.
Fort Irwin has almost no armored Humvees, though commanders concede that the top-heavy vehicles are far harder to control than standard Humvees in the abrupt maneuvers often needed to survive an IED attack. Camp Shelby, Miss., a National Guard training site, uses fake "surrogates" to simulate the electronic jammers that block the wireless signals insurgents use to detonate IEDs.
Across the Pentagon's entire training complex, there are no more than a few of the new Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, known as MRAPs, that are being rushed to Iraq as the latest response to the IED threat.
Marine Corps Lt. Gen. James Mattis, selected in September to head the U.S. Joint Forces Command, told Congress in confirmation testimony that all troops are prepared when they reach combat.
But Mattis acknowledged that "units are challenged in their readiness by equipment needs … and (lack of) time to train." Many don't get to practice with the equipment they'll use in combat because there's only enough to supply troops already in the theater, he said, and they don't reach a combat-ready state until "just in time" for their deployment.
It's impossible to assess the costs of inadequate training: There are no statistics on how many of the 1,600 troops killed by IEDs might have lived if they had been better prepared. Commanders and rank-and-file troops alike acknowledge that they've had to play catch-up in training for the IED threat.
In recent years, that training has evolved and improved dramatically, but "it hasn't been quick enough," says Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, commander of the 1st Army, which trains all National Guard and reserve troops in the mainland USA. "It's gotten better and better, but we're still a long way from perfect."
Army Spc. Stephen Castner's complaints about his pre-deployment training still haunt his father. Castner, 27, a veteran of four years active duty in the Air Force, was back in uniform in the spring of 2006 as a National Guardsman doing exercises at Camp Shelby.
Castner's calls home were full of concerns, especially about the lack of realistic training for IEDs and the shortage of Humvees. His father, a former Army reservist also named Stephen, was so troubled that he wrote to his congressman, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.
Two months after the letter went out, Spc. Castner was dead.
On his first mission in Iraq, his Humvee was hit by a roadside bomb while providing security for a long convoy. Blown into a marshy ditch, the truck went unseen in the smoke as the rest of the convoy passed. A short time later, commanders noticed it missing, but by the time they returned and called for a medical evacuation, 25 minutes had passed. Castner's pulse stopped just as the helicopter got to the hospital; he died from blood loss.
Prodded by Sensenbrenner, the Pentagon's inspector general is investigating whether Castner's unit was properly trained and equipped. Regardless of whether such problems were decisive factors in Castner's death, the training concerns Castner raised reflect the Pentagon's continuing struggle to properly prepare troops for IEDs.
The Army began to set substantive servicewide IED training requirements for all soldiers in May 2004 — more than six months after attacks with the devices reached 100 per month.
Within weeks after the order from Maj. Gen. Raymond Barrett, the Army's Training and Doctrine Command began releasing IED "training support packages" to commanders. They've continued since, as often as every two months, tracking the constant changes in the ways insurgents make and trigger IEDs.
But change came slowly.
At the end of 2004, when Staff Sgt. Scott Molle deployed, his training at Fort Benning, Ga., included "some IEDs, but … most of the (IED) training we got you could pretty much throw out the window as soon as you got (to Iraq). It just didn't compare to what was happening" there.
The lag in IED training mirrored the reluctance of top Pentagon officials to acknowledge the potency of the insurgency — and the persistence of IEDs.
"We had a period there where the Pentagon wouldn't even acknowledge that there was an insurgency," says Rep. Vic Snyder, D-Ark., who chairs the House Armed Services subcommittee on military oversight. "So we were behind every step of the way — on training, equipment, technology."
These days, with far more robust instructional programs in place, there still isn't enough time and money to make sure that all war fighters get all the best possible IED training.
The three brigade combat teams that skipped training at Fort Irwin didn't have the 10 days it takes to get soldiers and equipment to and from the base. Instead, the training center dispatched trainers and equipment to put the three 4,500-soldier units through final exercises at their home bases.
"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."