Fort Riley-based infantry division goes through desert training in California before possibly leaving for Iraq
Iraq War: Local Perspective
Fort Irwin, Calif. In the barren desert that makes up most of Fort Irwin, soldiers train in conditions that are near-mirror images of what they'll face in war zones like Iraq.
But the soldiers aren't the only ones living on base.
In fact, the realistic scenarios they face are thanks to a cast of hundreds. From Hollywood-effects wizards to Iraqi expatriates, Fort Irwin could be the world's largest live-action movie set. Without the cameras.
Hundreds of Iraqis live in Potemkin villages, erected by the U.S. Army to mimic the sights, sounds and smells of Iraq.
Brandon Hamilton wears a checkered balaclava around his neck. Maybe it's to protect him from the desert sun; maybe it's to protect him from errant bits of shrapnel from the mock improvised explosive devices he rigs.
Hamilton, 32, of San Diego, is part of Strategic Operations, a special-effects company that plants pyrotechnic IEDs, squirts fake blood on village streets and provides actors with missing limbs, all to give soldiers the impression that the combat simulations they complete are as real as what happens every day in Iraq.
"Anything that's associated with Hollywood-style special effects, that is our scope of work," said Hamilton, who spends about 16 days a month at Fort Irwin.
Hamilton keeps his company's trade secrets to himself, but is proud of what his toys - including foam-headed rocket-propelled grenade rounds - can achieve.
"It is fun, yeah, to push buttons and blow things up, but it is for a purpose, so that's why I'm here," he said.
The Army has its own special effects maestros, as well.
Sgt. First Class Michael Kile works with the Fort Irwin Surgeon's Office. On most days, he can be found in the streets of Fort Irwin's villages, rigging dummies with blood that pumps out of severed limbs. The dummies, whose gaping mouths and limp limbs resemble real corpses, are designed to respond to medics' treatments, such as applying a tourniquet.
Helping their homeland
Perhaps the most intriguing people at Fort Irwin are the hundreds of Iraqis who live on the base for more than half of every month, interacting with soldiers. They come from across the United States.
They're paid well, but that's not the only reason they come.
"I applied and I heard a friend of mine talking about it, and they were saying what a noble mission it is to : bring the two cultures together, and how you can help provide some understanding between the two cultures," said Sally Bedrossian, a Baghdadi who plays an Iraqi policeman. "And (with) my unique position as an Iraqi and a U.S. citizen : I thought that would be a beautiful opportunity to make a contribution to both societies."
He has lived in the United States for 29 years.
Understanding one another makes all the difference, he said. Understanding one another can bring peace.
He appreciates his life in America, "so when the time came, I wanted to make a difference," he said.
Like Bedrossian, 41-year-old Alaa Al-Almi, a Nashville resident and a veteran of the Iraqi Army, feels he is serving his countrymen, as he portrays an insurgent in the village of Medina Wasl.
"It's kind of a little weird, but (it is important) to teach them not to make a mistake : it makes them more sensitive (to potential situations)," he said.
But he's doing more than helping American troops.
"It's interesting that I'm here and helping my family from there," he said.
Making a friend every day
When Lt. Col. John Richardson patrolled the Baghdad slum of Sadr City in 2003, he passed the same man day after day. A virtual barrier stood between them, occupier and occupied, separated by language and culture.
But when Richardson and the man finally smiled at each other and shook hands, it became clear to the commander of the 5th Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division that he had made a friend, one that could be key in fighting the insurgency.
He took that lesson home, and is instructing his troops to make a friend every day they are on patrol.
He likens it to meeting a new neighbor. At first, a person wouldn't trust a neighbor to feed the dog when he or she goes out of town. But little by little, trust is established to the point where neighbors help each other. In the case of Iraq, Americans need Iraqis' help in squashing the insurgency.
"Break down those barriers that come from cultural differences and establish a relationship that results in trust. And once you've established that trust, then you've taken the ball down the field just a little bit further, because with that trust, the local population will be more willing to support not only our efforts, but then the Iraqi government's efforts. It's all about legitimacy," he said.
It's part winning hearts and minds, part Army doctrine, but Richardson is confident that a simple idea like making a friend is equal to other military tactics.