Reporter trains with Army’s border transition team

Army Specialist Jason Neuhaus enjoys being one of the bad guys.At Fort Riley, Neuhaus, of Herrington, is one of the OPFORs, short for “opposing force.” He plays the role of an enemy sniper who hides in buildings that other soldiers enter and search.Earlier this week he was at an isolated mock village where training in searching and securing buildings was being conducted. The exercises get soldiers ready for urban combat.Neuhaus’ job during those exercises is to shoot as many of the soldiers as he can before they get him.”I’ll usually start downstairs, engage a couple of them and then run upstairs and wait for them,” Neuhaus said.I talked to Neuhaus earlier this week while I was embedded for a day with a Military Transition Team undergoing training at Fort Riley. Transition teams are small units of about 10 soldiers who will go to Iraq or Afghanistan to train and advise Army or national police forces.These soldiers will live among the Iraqis or Afghans they are training. They will eat their host’s food and build cultural relationships.MiTTs are getting a special emphasis by the American military. That’s because the quicker the two countries can handle their own security the quicker Americans can come home.The unit I was with was a border transition team. They are undergoing several weeks of special training before heading to Iraq, where their mission will be to help the Iraqis learn to secure their country’s borders. Lt. Col. Brent Frazier was their commander.Not all of the soldiers in the unit have been to Iraq. Not all of them have previous training in how to search and secure a building. They spent a morning in the mock village learning how to line up and search a building room by room.”Do I remember everything now? No, but we’ll get it,” Frazier said later. He noted that clearing buildings would be a small part of their job in Iraq. Mainly, they would show the Iraqis how to do it.That afternoon the team loaded their M-4 rifles with what they called paintballs. The paintballs are nothing like the round balls shot by civilian paintball game enthusiasts. They look like bullets with clear tips that contain a tiny amount of colored paint. The paint is for marking purposes.I and another writer with the unit got to go into the buildings to be searched with a trainer and wait and watch the soldiers storm in. They knew we were there, and they knew where we would be standing. Nevertheless, we wore at least an extra 20 pounds of body armor and a Kevlar helmet. We already had spent the morning wearing that stuff. Then we were given goggles and a black mesh mask to wear over our faces for additional protection. It made us quite hot, and it was sometimes difficult to breathe. Later that day I asked one of the soldiers acting as a trainer/observer to shoot me in the chest with the paintball bullet. The body armor covering my chest was thick enough to stop an AK-47 assault rifle bullet, so I knew I wouldn’t be hurt. The soldier agreed, stood about 10 or 12 feet away and shot me. There was a slight “thud” as the bullet bounced off. It felt like someone throwing a small pebble at me while I was wearing a big winter coat.If I had been shot in my uncovered arms or legs, things would have been different. It would have hurt, like getting shot by a BB, several soldiers had told me.During the last building search of the afternoon, a sniper was hidden and waiting upstairs. I do not know if it was Neuhaus.Staff Sgt. Oscar Valenzuela saw the sniper in an open closet at the end of the hallway. The two exchanged shots. The sniper was “killed,” and Valenzuela suffered two wounds from the paintballs the sniper fired in his upper thigh. The wounds looked like nickel size circles with the top flesh scraped away.I asked Valenzuela if it felt like getting hit by BBs.”No,” he said.Frazier’s team did well considering it was their first time searching and clearing buildings, a trainer said.”They could be more aggressive. They were afraid they were going to make a mistake. That will change,” he said.