FORT IRWIN, Calif. — As they train for combat in mock Middle Eastern villages, soldiers find that their fighting skills often cannot make up for a shortage of interpreters and a poor understanding of Iraqi culture. A team of soldiers from the Fort Lewis, Wash.-based 3rd Stryker Brigade, a part of the Army’s 2nd Infantry Division, is here at the National Training Center for a two-week rotation. They are about to launch a humanitarian aid mission at a refugee camp. The goal is to prepare soldiers to cope with the unpredictable hurdles that come with interacting with people from a different culture.
When the sun begins to disappear one evening in February, Capt. Paul Russell, commander of the 18th Engineering Company, leads a convoy that is heading to the refugee camp, located in the southeastern sector of the center’s 1,100 square miles of Mojave Desert. He will be working with units not normally under his charge for this operation.
“That’s the new Army,” he says. “You have to be prepared to do all kinds of missions,” even when the missions are as unpleasant as providing latrines.
The day before, the brigade’s human intelligence team met with the displaced civilians, and the biggest issue they brought up was latrines. They don’t have enough of them, and the ones they do have are overflowing. The other issue is acquiring heat for the nighttime.
As the convoy enters the refugee camp, a group of men in tan uniforms — members of the Iraqi Army, played by American soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment — eye the newcomers with curiosity.
One Iraqi soldier approaches Spc. Amber Davatz, a member of the Belton, Mo.-based 418th Civil Affairs Battalion, and says something in jibberish. The others close in as he pulls out his magazine and points at the rounds inside.
“Bad American,” he says.
Others follow suit, and when they don’t receive any response, they begin chanting and become rowdy.
The noise attracts some of the displaced villagers, who are being portrayed by volunteers of Iraqi descent from southern California. They gather a short distance away to watch.
One of the role-playing soldiers covertly steals a box of meals ready to eat. To pacify the situation, Capt. John Schulz of the 418th hops into the trailer and starts tossing soccer balls to hands up in the air. The Iraqi soldiers and the villagers run off in several pick-up games.
Schulz seizes the opportunity to send one Humvee back to the base entrance to pick up Capt. Matthew Nelson, another member of the civil affairs team, and an interpreter. With their help, he issues a statement that the Americans will train the Iraqi soldiers better.
Schulz and Nelson venture into the camp searching for the village leaders.
Meanwhile, several relief trucks pull into the camp, attracting the displaced villagers, who pour out of the tents in hopes of getting food, water and blankets. They crowd around the outnumbered soldiers who calmly keep them back. A few brazen role players scramble on top of the truck bed and attempt to off-load some of the supplies before they are stopped.
“These people don’t have the basic necessities. They want to get them quickly,” says Nelson, who spent two years in Afghanistan conducting civil affairs operations. An unruly crowd desperately trying to grab whatever supplies it can get its hands on is a typical scenario soldiers encounter in theater, he says.
A group of women standing nearby begins clapping their hands and chanting. The crowd grows increasingly impatient.
The U.S. soldiers’ inability to communicate poses a major impediment in these missions, Nelson says. “They need an interpreter to figure out what’s going on.” For the training exercises, the brigade has been allocated fewer interpreters than it wanted.
As if on cue, a male voice booms over a loudspeaker and a female one follows shortly. The crowd cheers from time to time in response. Later, the soldiers learn that the speakers weren’t giving instructions on relief distribution. They were rallying the villagers against the American troops.
When it becomes clear that no supplies will be distributed, the crowd disperses.
“Another day no food,” says one refugee.
Inside a tent, Schulz organizes a team to begin distributing the relief supplies. He hands out small slips of paper meant to represent boxes of food and water. Shortly after, they get kicked out of the tent for prayers.
Outside, Russell says he has met with the village leaders, and has decided to pull out all the troops as punishment for the unlawful behavior of the villagers.
“We’re here to deliver aid and relief as quickly as possible, and in exchange, they promised that the people would stay away [from the vehicles]. That wasn’t done,” he says. The situation “quickly became stressful.”
One of the sheiks approaches the captains for a discussion. With the help of a translator, Russell is told that the villagers don’t want the soldiers using the women’s latrines behind the camp. Russell agrees and promises to relay the message to the soldiers.
The sheik also wants the military trucks out of the area. Russell explains to him that the soldiers are there to provide security for the camp.
In the end, a boundary is drawn. The Army will put its forces to the north of camp and guard the north entrance, and the Iraqi army will handle the south entrance.
Russell worries about the arrangement. Once word gets out that there’s food, “this camp could become real hot,” he says. He hurries off to make sure the troops are complying with the sheik’s demands.
Capt. Heyward Davis, a platoon leader with the 209th Military Intelligence Company, tells Schulz he has set up a meeting with the five sheiks. He arrived at the camp yesterday to help with the leadership transition and says the Americans should have had Schulz and his civil affairs team there to deal with them.
“This is a fascinating place. You have to talk with at least six different people to get things done,” he says. “I’m loving this training.”
He and Schulz walk to the men’s sleeping tent with an interpreter for the meeting. Groups sit about on cots and the floor playing games, chatting or brewing tea. The captains make their way over to where the five sheiks have gathered in the corner.
After introductions are made, the sheiks request medical attention for several ailing villagers. The captains say they will help bring in doctors and they talk about distributing the supplies and blankets. Already, the three leaders have encountered the difficulty of accomplishing certain tasks and negotiating with the villagers without an interpreter. It is a constant game of tug-of-war for a very limited commodity, they say, especially when the three must go their separate ways inside the camp to take care of villagers’ needs.
“I need a translator; it’s killing me,” remarks Russell, as he walks off to meet with another sheik.
But the soldiers quickly learn that oftentimes it is gestures and not words that speak the loudest. During a meeting with a sheik representing the village of Nahiat al-Bab al-Sharq, Davis inquires about the resident Kurdish Peshmerga Militia that drove the villagers out. After the sheik asks for time to find the information and the people, Davis politely says he appreciates the help and kisses him on the cheeks three times, as per custom, making a positive impression on the leader. The barrier has come tumbling down and a friendship has formed in its stead.
“I like that guy,” Davis remarks once he’s outside. “He has a tough role to play.”
As Davis later discovers, such effort can yield important tactical information, such as an area map detailing potential ambushes and improvised explosive devices plotted by insurgents.
While walking past one of the tents, Davis encounters an Iraqi soldier. He stops him and asks to see his bullets. The soldier pulls out his magazine. Davis examines the bullets inside, then says, “OK” He hands the clip back to the soldier. The United States provided bullets that were loaded backwards, he explains. In an effort to rebuild good relations with the Iraqi soldiers, Davis has taken every opportunity to check their magazines.
As soon as night falls, some of the villagers begin wandering outside the tents. They appear to test boundaries, venturing close to the berms that demarcate the border between the civilian and military sides. Soldiers take turns patrolling the perimeter of the U.S. Army’s area, walking along the vehicles, keeping a watchful eye on the civilians’ activities. There are Strykers stationed at intervals pointing away from the tents to keep the lookout for threats outside the base. Because they were cautioned against pointing guns at civilians, the soldiers have parked their combat vehicles with their weapons swiveled away.
Around midnight, there are two explosions in the air near where the human intelligence, medical and civil affairs teams’ vehicles are parked. It is too dark to see much, but soldiers rush out of their vehicles. A large group of villagers has gathered nearby, and there are some shouts as a scuffle between Sunnis and Shiites escalates. They stop 20 feet short of the Stryker vehicles and begin pelting rocks. The soldiers attempt to quell the crowd, their flashlight beams bouncing about more rapidly and their voices rising.
Suddenly, a fountain of small green tubular lights arcs through the air towards the soldiers — chemical lights that simulate hand grenades. The crowd yells and people begin rushing at the troops. The soldiers fire off shots. Bodies lie on the ground.
Soldiers begin evacuating the fallen, carrying them out on litters and loading them up into waiting vehicles. The radio gives out statistics at regular intervals: 30 to 40 people wounded, 20 killed in action, several human intelligence soldiers missing. Anything south is now considered hostile.
In the morning, a weary-looking Russell gives a briefing to Schulz and Davis.
“We are back to square one,” he says. “We will stay, and will have to reengage the village leaders. We need to determine why this happened and how to prevent it, and we need to find who’s responsible.”
Sipping coffee in a canteen, Russell stands near the ramp of his Stryker and reflects upon the training so far.
“This is absolutely amazing,” he says. This is the best training he’s received in the Army, he says. He’s not used to the free-flowing nature of this exercise and how the villagers react to his every action. It’s like night and day, in comparison to what he experienced in Germany at the Army’s Combat Maneuver Training Center.
Russell served a tour with the Stryker brigade in Mosul, Iraq, as an assistant brigade engineer. When the brigade deploys for Iraq in June, the company commander will encounter a very different battlefield. But even after the village riot last night — and only day two of the rotation, he says, “I feel more confident for going back into that environment.”