NOTE: This blog entry originally appeared in November of 2009.
By Chad Campbell, senior producer
The only reason I ever heard of the National Training Center was because a friend of mine from college took an unusual job with the Army to go to Afghanistan and help the military better understand and co-exist with the local population. As I considered the production possibilities, Kristin told me that her Human Terrain Team was going to train at the NTC — in the middle of July — in the middle of the Mojave Desert. How could I refuse? I spent three memorable nights there along with my fellow producer Geoffrey Reddick, covering Kristin and her team’s training, but the more we saw of the NTC, it became obvious that we could get another hour of ear-popping programming. The people we met were that impressive and so was the place itself. So today we present “The Mirage of War: A Day in the Life of the Army’s National Training Center.”
It’s a patch of desert about the size of Rhode Island — between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. The NTC prides itself on “training the force,” in the most realistic way possible. There are 13 mock villages, each with a local population of role players, fake marketplaces and replica mosques. Several thousand soldiers at a time deploy to Ft. Irwin for a 28-day training rotation — before they deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan.
On the morning of our first full day on the base, we went to the observation deck (nicknamed “Vulture’s Row”) above the main street of the mock village of Medina Wasl. That’s where we met Sergeant First Class Bertran Schultz. He was there to watch and take pictures of his troops, the medics of the 2-44th Engineers based in Denver. He agreed to let me stick a microphone in his face while the exercise unfolded. I think he was happy to be able to have some outlet for his frustration. Usually Sergeant Schultz would be down there helping his troops navigate the obstacles in their way. But today, he was stuck in an observation role, standing next to me.
We spoke with Brigadier General Dana Pittard, the commanding general of the National Training Center from August 2007 - March 2009 about the evolution of the NTC from 1940 through today. He filled in a lot of details and the broad strokes of the big picture.
We also spoke to role players “in the box” — actual Iraqis “KJ” and “Naji” — and with Ashley, Amy and Jill, American civilians pretending to be Iraqi shopkeepers in our fake village’s pretend marketplace.
Of course there was the excellent play-by-play from Sergeant Schultz (yes, he’s heard all of the jokes) and the conversation afterwards with him and the unit’s Staff Sergeant Matthew Brown.
There are dozens of people who made this program possible, but I’d like to especially thank Etric Smith, the public affairs officer at Ft. Irwin who expedited our trip to the National Training Center on short notice — drove us around the base AND put us up for a night in the Lyndon Marcus Jr. International Hotel in Medina Wasl.