February 9, 2005
Ft. Stewart-- Some Iraqis welcome American soldiers. Some despise them, and often it’s hard for the troops to tell the difference until it's too late. In an instant they may become entangled in a crisis-- a showdown with Iraqi civilians.
Here at Fort Stewart, they're training to deal with that, and it's about as realistic as it can get, without bullets flying at the soldiers.
Two squads of Georgia National Guard troops are on a routine patrol through a mock Iraqi village. "Our mission was just to make contact with the civilian heads of government," says Guardsman Ralph Lovett.
Initially, the visitors seem happy to see the soldiers. "We did not expect a confrontation, but we were prepared for it," Ralph said.
And a confrontation is exactly what they got. The villagers suddenly turn on the troops, screaming anti-American slogans. “It is intimidating. You have to be aware of what could happen and be mentally prepared for it."
The soldiers take a protective formation as the civilians close in around them. The unit's Iraqi interpreter helps squad leaders communicate with the town's sheik. "We have a mission to accomplish, and we will complete the mission no matter what it takes."
As the troops force their way down the street, the crowd becomes more agitated, and the unit’s formation breaks. “We learned the true importance of the formation we used,” said Ralph Lovett. “For example, when we used a formation improperly, we lost a man."
The troops didn’t realize the civilians kidnapped a soldier until they made it out of town and an instructor told them-- "I know something that you don't know."
"I do too," said Ralph. "We're missing a guy."
"How long have you known that?"
"About a minute."
"Okay, that should have been brought to somebody's attention."
Now, they have to negotiate with the sheik. Samir blames American troops for hardships in the village. The Interpreter says: “They have no food, they have no medicine, they have no…”
Ralph says back: "I wish to see my soldier."
But the negotiations drag on too long for the angry villagers who shoot the hostage, and place his helmet and flak jacket on the edge of town. Then the troops have to re-enter town to retrieve the fallen soldier's body.
After the exercise as soldiers talk about what went wrong, “Today, we learned what can happen to a patrol when things go poorly," Ralph says.
They also talk about what went right because this realistic training in a mock Iraqi village in rural Georgia, will prepare them for a real crisis they may face in Iraq. "I think it's an excellent addition to the training. I know we'll always pull together, and we're gonna do well."
The instructors actually stopped the training exercise before the troops recovered the dead soldier's body because it was so realistic, it was getting too rough.
Those villagers are mostly American civilians hired by an outside contractor, but there were several Iraqi nationals I the mix as well.
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