By Judd Hambrick Special to the Daily Journal
CAMP SHELBY – The sun is high with brutally hot 100 degrees of mid-afternoon misery. No breeze.
An American Army convoy of five Humvees, led by a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, lumbers at no more than 20 mph toward a small Afghanistan village on a part dirt, part gravel road.
Twenty soldiers are sweltering inside the vehicles, sweat cascading down their faces.
Each of their heads move side to side, silently searching in all directions, looking for any signs of the most deadly war weapon in the Afghanistan Taliban arsenal – an IED, or improvised explosive device.
An IED comes in many shapes and sizes and functions. It is a homemade bomb specifically designed to eviscerate American soldiers and their allies.
Suddenly, the lead MRAP stops. All other vehicles follow suit.
Some 150 feet in front on the convoy is a previous IED blast hole in the road, covered with a thin layer of gravel. Is it truly a repaired hole, or is it a freshly hidden IED?
With closer surveillance, a small black wire can be seen along the ground stretched into a nearby tree line. No question in the minds of the American soldiers staring at it. It is a new IED.
They also know that in a matter of seconds after the IED explodes, small arms fire will begin assaulting them, probably from all directions by an unknown number of insurgents.
Some 10 minutes after the small arms attack begins, Taliban mortar fire will rain down on the convoy. American air strike coordinates will have to be called in. Soldiers could die or suffer horrible wounds. Medical evacuation units likely will be needed.
Curious Afghan villagers have left their homes and have now begun to make their way down the road to greet the American soldiers, waving, speaking in Arabic and laughing as they approach the troops.
Are these Afghan villagers friends or foes? Will they walk into the black trip wire in just a few more steps and detonate the IED, becoming that dreaded U.S. statistic called “civilian collateral damage”?
War happens fast. The American unit commander has only a few nanoseconds to assess the situation to form a plan and to carry it out safely, quickly and victoriously. Such is war in Afghanistan.
But this setting is not real war, and it is not in Afghanistan.
It is sophisticated military training, and it is being done at one of the many Afghan villages created on the sprawling 136,000-acre rolling landscape called Camp Shelby – the largest state-owned military training site in the nation, just south of Hattiesburg.
The perspiring U.S. soldiers being trained in the scenario just described are real, but the IEDs are mere “smoke bombs,” designed to create billowing confusion.
The Afghan villagers, wearing full traditional attire, are paid role players who speak Arabic and are imported from various sections of American cities to create even more confusion and a more realistic scene of what the soldiers will eventually face in war.
In military jargon, this “scenario training” is part of a program called Counter-IED Training.
It is state-of-the-art training that combines video, virtual gaming technology, hands-on displays of IED bomb-making and bomb avoidance equipment, and simulated mission scenarios.
This intensive training can last three days or longer.
Army Capt. Mark Scott of West Point, a lead counter-IED instructor at Camp Shelby, said about 50,000 men and women have undergone the training while mobilizing here en route to the war zone.
This type of training has been ramped up dramatically in the past two years because IEDs are currently the leading cause of casualties to U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Military convoys are the main target.
According to the Pentagon, IEDs are the war danger soldiers fear the most.
There were 8,159 IEDs detonated or found in Afghanistan last year, responsible for more than 40 percent of U.S. combat deaths and 60 percent of the wounded.
Those numbers are down significantly this year because of the various anti-IED military programs, costing $17 billion, that are under way for U.S. troops worldwide, including the Counter-IED program here at Camp Shelby.
IED use by the enemy is constantly changing, as the insurgents evaluate soldier reactions and response times to attacks.
But battlefield responses also can change – in record time.
When U.S. soldiers experience IED-related situations in the field that they have never seen before, they take notes – literally.
Within two hours, the unit commander has written a field report and submitted it to headquarters; headquarters puts together an extensive power point presentation on how to counter this new IED method of attack; and within 48 hours, the new counter-IED maneuver has become a part of the Counter-IED Training program half a world away at Camp Shelby.