Training for Combat Never Comes Close to the Real Thing, War Vets Say
ORLANDO – Training for war is an inexact science. Troops home from recent deployments have the scars to prove it.
The billions of dollars that the U.S. military spends on simulation and training efforts each year didn't prevent Marine Corps Sgt. Justin Tygart from being shot in the stomach in Afghanistan. On the other hand, his training may have saved his life.
Insurgents threw grenades into an abandoned house Tygart and his fellow snipers were using as a stake out. The sergeant came outside the building and shot one of the enemy fighters. Then he was shot, and his weapon jammed.
Wounded, he cleared the jam and continued to fight.
He credits the simulation and live training he had with his weapon for his survival. But a sniper's reputation is built on his relationship with the units he supports, Tygart said. And his extensive training, which took him away to schoolhouse after schoolhouse, didn't afford him the time to become familiar with the unit and commander he was supporting the day he was shot.
“A lot could have been mitigated,” Tygart said, if he could have received that face time with the commander.
Tygart's story is just one of the blunt assessments being made by men and women back from deployments here at the Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference. Government and industry executives in attendance tell National Defense that they must listen to these accounts and incorporate the lessons learned from them into future systems. If their training deviates too much from what they have experienced while deployed, troops will lose interest or be ill-prepared for the next assignment, officials said.
And the assignments cut a wide swath.
Air Force Capt. Matt Tarnowski was part of a three-pilot team that flew search and rescue personnel to Japan in a C-17 transport aircraft within a day of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
Army Sgt. 1st Class Brent Adams has been through several deployments to Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s to Iraq and Afghanistan this past decade. In Iraq, he served as a tank commander clearing routes and scanning for roadside bombs. In Afghanistan, he was an airborne scout providing reconnaissance near the Pakistan border.
Navy Aviation Electronics Technician 3rd Class Heather Arcelay was responsible for the transport and care of enemy prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Each said that their assignments revealed glaring holes in their training experiences.
Tarnowski had to fly a 24-hour mission at a moment's notice as part of an inexperienced flight crew. Pilots should be able to prepare for such a task by entering a simulator when they are dead tired so the experience more closely resembles reality, he said.
“We need to practice how we play,” Tarnowski said.
Adams said that weapon simulators have proved convenient and led to improvements in marksmanship in theater. However, when his unit first received blue-force tracker systems in their vehicles, they had no idea how to work them.
“I got into my truck in Kuwait and saw this computer screen and didn't even know what the heck it was,” he said. “And then nobody else knew what it was.”
So they rolled through Iraq with the system off.
Arcelay received two weeks of training, when she should have received five, she said. She was taught how to handle detainees by instructors who had no experience doing so themselves. She had to learn how to serve food through a tiny slot in a cell door and perform “verbal judo” with enemy fighters who thrived on playing mind games with guards. She was given a dose of pepper spray so she could know the effect of the only weapon she would be able to use to keep prisoners from harming themselves or other guards.
During training, volunteers would play the roles of violent and uncooperative detainees.
“But once you get face to face with a detainee, it's a little bit different than talking to an American contractor,” Arcelay said. “The training I had was helpful, but it would have been better if I had five whole weeks of training.”
Tygart said that his deployments had been marred by a lack of instruction about the reconnaissance resources available to support ground troops. He knew little about how to communicate with drone operators, surveillance towers and fixed-wing aircraft equipped with sensors.
The lack of this knowledge probably got a fellow sniper shot in the helmet this past Valentine's Day while they were set up on a rooftop keeping an eye on a suspicious character. A bullet ripped through the fabric on his partner's Kevlar helmet, but no one was hurt. Still, the whole incident could have been much different if they had “eyes in the sky” that could tell them who and what was inside the building the man emerged from, Tygart said.
Canned training scenarios will no longer hold water for men and women with fresh memories of real experiences in theater, officials said. Military and industry must find ways to rapidly apply this up-to-date information into the training and simulation environment, they said. One industry executive said that technology doesn't win wars; trained specialists do. And it may take a while before the services discover the right balance of training methods, Adams said.
“I grew up in an Army with no simulation,” he said. “Almost everything I do now has to do with technology . . . But nothing takes the place of going out and doing it the real way.”
Well before computers, old-fashioned training helped create deadly and decisive squads, Adams said. It's probably too soon to say how drastically simulation can improve effectiveness across the Army, he said.
“I can't come up with an iPhone app that makes my squad any better than the next.”