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Hot Breath Of War In Mojave


March 12 2006

TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. -- In the Mojave Desert of California, somewhere between Palm Springs and nowhere, is an Iraqi village built for the U.S. Marine Corps.

An Iraqi flag jerks in the desert wind above neighborhoods where people in traditional Arab dress walk the dirt streets. They gather, laughing and smoking, sometimes arguing, Arabic curses punctuated by jabbing hands.

Often, many times a day, they pick up guns and shoot at Americans.

The village is like an impressionist painting, more a suggestion of reality than a copy. Several months ago, $16.5 million worth of materials in massive shipping containers and carpentry had produced the newest way to teach Marines how to deal with the threats they will face in Iraq. Among the first battalions of Marines to train at the desert village is one from Connecticut. Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 25th Marines.

Seen from the red-brown hills surrounding it, the village could be taken for a piece of Basra or Fallujah, torn whole from those cities to be dropped here, complete with the onion domes of mosques and the bleachers of a soccer field. But a walk through its dusty streets shows it to be only a vast collection of shipping containers - like those unloaded from cargo ships onto train flatbeds or pulled behind trucks. It's as if a Hollywood set had been packed up and moved into the desert, 150 miles east.

Called Wadi al Sahara by those who work here, the village's crude architecture of scattered and stacked containers belies an undeniable element of realism: Many of its occupants originally are from Iraq.

Samir Ismail drove tanks for the Iraqi Army until he surrendered to U.S. forces in the Gulf War. In the years since, he changed his home from Mosul to San Diego and became a U.S. citizen. He now works in Wadi al Sahara, where he said the pay is decent, but the reason to be here is clear. "I hope Iraq becomes like America or Europe or Japan."

Ismail is the colonel of the village's mock outpost of Iraqi Security Forces. He looks the part, in desert camouflage, a leather jacket and sunglasses. When the leaders of 1st Battalion, 25th Marines drop by to meet with him and his officers, he welcomes them with the aura of a commander, asking through a translator for infrastructure improvements to the village, the kind of requests Marine officers have come to expect in the field.

When the training Marines aren't around, he speaks clear English. He's lost six relatives in the war, he said. But he wants America to stay there. "It takes time to change," he said. "The people, the way they think, it's not easy to change them."

As for the threat of civil war, he revealed a weariness over the endless sectarian struggle. "Let them fight and destroy themselves," he said. "Maybe it would be a solution."

Across the village, Nadir Easa is playing translator. He's working with Charlie Company from Plainville. About half of the Marines around him live in Connecticut, as he does. Easa is one of dozens of Kurdish people who have settled in Waterbury. Like Ismail, he said he went through the application process and all the rigorous screening for more than money. The removal of Saddam Hussein was a dream, he said. But he and his wife still have family in Iraq, so he's glad to work with the Marines who will be over there next, to "teach them good things."

In six weeks here, Easa has had to play villager, translator and even terrorist. When he heard he'd have to be a car bomber at one point, he said to them, "What the hell? I don't want to be a Baathist."

In the moments of frequent down time, he helps the young Marines work on their Arabic. One day, he provided phrases they might need to stop and search cars. An explosion thumped in the distance. "Now I know it's Iraq," he said, laughing.

Charlie Company is one of the companies of a Marine Corps Reserve battalion known as "New England's Own." The citizen Marines - from every corner of Connecticut - have been called for duty in Fallujah. Seven months in a city that has claimed a lot of Marine lives.

Wadi al Sahara is the last stop before they leave. It was built in late 2005 as the final training post for all Marines deploying to Iraq. They come here, into the Mojave, to endure sandstorms, desert sun and confusion. Charlie, with about 200 Marines, is the latest unit immersed in this new program. They call it Mojave Viper.

But Charlie is almost done now. It's a matter of a couple of weeks before the company sees the real thing, replacing a unit in the middle of Fallujah.

"I'm sure they are anxiously awaiting our arrival," said the company's battalion commander, Lt. Col. Chris Landro.

Learning And Doing

Jimmy Louis, a lance corporal from Norwalk, said the news out of Iraq, the boiling violence of a potential civil war, doesn't enter often into his mind. "I'm not really thinking much about what's going on."

The 23-year-old art and graphic design student at Delaware State University has ways of detaching himself. While seated, during platoon instruction on working alongside tanks, he sketches the M1 Abrams tank looming over him. The art, he said, "calms you out."

It was Lance Cpl. Sean Wilmington's inability to detach himself that landed him in the Marines. He had a friend who was expecting to go to Iraq with Charlie Company. So Wilmington, a 29-year-old from New Hartford who worked in an Avon pub, said he decided to go, too. Some people put support-our-troops ribbons on their cars, he said. "I just enlisted to support them. That's all."

"I'm not going to sit there and let my friends go to war," he said. And anyway, he saw the big picture. "Foreign policy and domestic policy have always been intertwined," he said, and stability in the Middle East is "one of those behind-the-scenes things that plays a major factor in American life."

But by now, he added, it's the bond with the guys around him that motivates him, though some of them "are young as hell."

That bond also drives Lance Cpl. James Lauber of Waterbury. He said he "couldn't ask for better friends than we have around us."

Louis, Wilmington and Lauber are three of the 91 guys from Connecticut in the company. The thing about a Reserve unit like Charlie Company is that its people have usually been together awhile. They are set apart from the faster tempo of active-duty Marine units, so they form longer bonds, including with their leadership.

So, when Charlie Company hit the massive desert base at Twentynine Palms for its 26 days of training with an almost entirely new set of leaders, it took adjustment. There was a brand new commander, Maj. Vaughn Ward, who had stepped in as a volunteer out of Virginia just in time for their training in the village. There was a new first sergeant, the chief noncommissioned officer who, while the commander deals with the missions, is the one who deals with the Marines. And all the captains who command the platoons were drawn from active-duty posts.

Maj. Ward thinks there will be enough time, he said. "We're training hard, getting closer every day." While Charlie Company dodges enemy fire and bombs in the sand streets of the village, it also gets to know the guys giving the orders.

Role Players

The time in the village is split between learning and doing. The Marines sit through a blur of classes, one after another. Then they try out their knowledge. They might run an assault against insurgents through a section of town using live paint rounds - bullets that can be fired through their real weapons but that only leave a paint mark, and maybe a welt underneath. Or they might conduct a patrol or house search in which they would have to deal with the Iraqi role players while waging battles with insurgents - played by other Marines - firing blanks at each other.

Charlie Company has made mistakes, but as Ward put it, the Marines have the chance to mess up here, where they don't get hurt, so they know better in a few weeks, when it counts. "It's a smart way to do something," he said.

Nobody in the training course - not the instructors, the managers, the role players or the students - pretend that the village is really Iraq. But they all usually echo the same sentiment: "It's as real a look as we're going to get," as Ward put it.

When 2nd Platoon rounded up a family of Iraqis while their house was searched, Sgt. Jason Hermenau from Torrington - a Winsted police officer used to being an armed presence in people's living rooms - tried to communicate with them.

"Do you know where the bad people are?" he asked through a translator.

Then, left alone with them, he struggled with their insistent Arabic phrases until a couple of the role players broke character to help him out with a language lesson. It's harder than Spanish, he joked. Later, he said it was something he would have to work hard on.

Joe Galdis, a retired Marine officer, is a contractor who manages the 49 Iraqi role players in the village. He said this work is "their contribution to the war effort." These lessons may be life-or-death for the Marines, and they could also be that important for the role players' family members who are still in Iraq.

Language. Culture. Behavior. They are as much a part of the lessons here as how to set up a checkpoint or spot an insurgent.

One instructor told Charlie Company, "If you treat every human being with dignity and respect, you're 99 percent of the way there." If they turn out to be hostile: "We kill them. It's that simple."

Maintaining Relevance

"What does an IED look like?" asked an instructor, referring to the "improvised explosive devices" that are often planted on roadsides to catch U.S. patrols.

"Anything," his Charlie Company class responded in unison.

Almost all of the instructors here, known as "coyotes," have been to Iraq. Many have been to Fallujah.

Cpl. Shawn Rodgers, a Missourian who has been to Fallujah twice, said "A lot of lessons learned are firsthand lessons - learned the hard way. I'd love to have had this training before we left."

He left Fallujah in July, thinking it seemed to be improving after the invasion by Marines in November 2004. "Before, you couldn't drive through the city without getting lit up," he said. The people there, he said, finally seemed to be tiring of the insurgents.

But in Iraq, conditions change every week. That's one of the challenges of this training center - maintaining relevance. Lt. Col. Patrick Kline, who developed much of the program and leads the instructors, said this is all about training Marines "to the current fight," so he sends crews to Iraq twice a year to talk to Marines. He also said the interactive program can be individualized for each unit that goes through, based on what they most need to work on.

In Charlie Company's case, it had a segment on patrolling with tanks, even though tanks haven't been used in Iraq's urban areas for some time. They needed to know it, Kline said.

The Iraqi role players hope the education of Charlie Company will mean they live up to the fliers posted on poles all over the village: "The Marines come as friends and brothers and are here to help build a FREE Iraq," they say, next to pictures of Marines interacting with Iraqis. But many of the role players are still scared enough of what's happening in their former country that they hide their faces from cameras and ask that their names not be used. They have family there, still.

"The macho, tough Marine doesn't think he has to be sensitive," Kline said. "We're getting over that."

No Timeouts

"Excited and nervous," Lance Cpl. William Leveille II of Plainville said of his feelings about going to Iraq. "I think we all are."

In the last week, four Marines have been killed in Anbar province, where Charlie Company is headed.

"You really can't think about it," Leveille, 21, said of that news. Instead, the Marines think about chow, about the next game of Spades or how they might find a cellular signal if they climb one of the dirt berms around their camp.

And then there was a different kind of news at the end of the week. The company was gathered as night fell. The major had something to say and was standing next to a familiar figure. "First Sgt. Grainger is now going to be your company first sergeant."

The Marines roared. Grainger was their old first sergeant in Connecticut, and they thought they had lost him to another assignment.

The major had more to say, though. "Learn your lessons here," he said. Why? The unit you replaced at this training facility, he told them, just suffered six casualties on their way into their mission in Iraq. "You gotta know in your mind what we're going into."

Then it was Grainger's turn: "It's real life," he said. "The IEDs don't stop going off at 6:30. You can't take a timeout. There are no timeouts."
Copyright 2006, Hartford Courant

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