CAMP LEJEUNE — After a decade taking the fight to the terrorists in the hills of Afghanistan, the Marine Corps has spent $20 million to bring a little slice of Afghanistan to Camp Lejeune.
It took about a year to convert an old warehouse on base into the 32,000-square-foot Infantry Immersion Trainer, a high-tech re-creation of a rural Afghan village replete with the clucking of chickens and the smells of meat cooking in the marketplace - and the concussive sounds of gunfire and roadside bombs. The trainer, built by private contractors, opened this month.
Col. Dan Lecce, commander of Camp Lejeune, said the project, which feels like an elaborate movie set, ultimately will save the lives of Marines in combat.
"In the Marine Corps, we call this graduate-level training," Lecce said before media were let into the facility to watch two squadrons of the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines go through exercises.
When he was a young recruit 26 years ago, Lecce said, "We had dirt ranges with a few wooden obstacles. Anything you would simulate, you would simulate with your mind."
War games have evolved in the past couple of decades.
Marines coming into fictional Logahalam (pronounced LOG-uh-lham) Thursday for the first time worked through this scenario:
The night before, they had witnessed an attack by the Taliban on workers in a poppy field. They were to go into the village where the men lived and gather intelligence on local Taliban fighters from residents and community leaders, leave the village and come back a second time to act on what they learned.
The way the Marines conducted themselves on the first visit - how they interacted with locals, how much information and assistance they gained and how much they understood of what they saw and heard - would determine how well their second trip would go.
If they made a positive impression on villagers the first time, things would go much more smoothly than if they alienated or offended the residents.
Entering the village
The Marines came in armed with weapons and months of preparation for a scheduled deployment to Afghanistan early next year.
They entered the trainer through a walled-in area outdoors that has a town common on one side and a small cemetery with stacked-stone graves on the other.
Inside the building, the old concrete floor of the warehouse is obscured under packed earth and loose gravel paths that meander among 25 one- and two-story buildings that serve as village homes, shops, a school, a medical clinic, a police station and a mosque. Gardens are planted outside some of the homes, ragged bicycles lean against stucco walls. A vegetable cart is parked over here, a poultry cart there. Birds chirp, dogs bark and children cry through speakers mounted above the buildings. Scent generators puff out the odors of barnyards, meat being roasted and a pervasive sweet smell that is supposed to simulate a wood fire.
About two dozen costumed role players populated Logahalam on Thursday, and about 150 cameras recorded the way Marines related with them and their surroundings, so officers could review the exercises immediately afterward to talk about successes and missed chances.
Avatars, controlled by trainers in a computer room inside the building, can interact with the Marines as well.
The two teams in the trainer on Thursday performed differently on their first visits to the village. One team gained the support of villagers, while the other angered the village chief by declining his offer to help administer aid to an injured man. But both learned that somewhere in Logahalam a man was hiding weapons he was selling to the Taliban. On their second trip in, the Marines were supposed to find the man and his cache.
Both squads suffered losses as a result of arms fire and homemade bombs, while they were making their way through the town, and eventually pulled out before accomplishing their goals.
The Marines have three other Infantry Immersion Trainers - two in California and one in Hawaii - all designed to help harden Marines against the stress of combat. Fighting forces need to be able to switch rapidly among three roles on the modern battlefield: full-scale military action, peacekeeping operations and humanitarian aid. Young Marines often must be able to make the shoot-don't shoot decision in a split second in chaotic conditions.
'Nobody gets hurt'
In Afghanistan, the Marine Corps has learned that a victory over insurgents can be overshadowed by civilian casualties, which have been difficult to avoid both in densely populated areas and small rural villages. The result has been strained relations with the Afghan people and government.
The Marine Corps began the immersion training with infantry because 89 percent of its casualties are among those forces. But in June, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Jim Amos told the Marine Corps Times he would like to see all Marines go through the training, to experience the pressures of combat in a foreign environment.
Lecce, the Lejeune commander, says the value of the training is the way it teaches Marines to handle chaotic situations, to focus on staying alive to complete the mission.
"These are life and death decisions that young Marines have to make every day in Afghanistan," he said. "It's great to be exposed to it here, where nobody gets hurt."
Lance Cpl. Kevin Daly, 20, returned from a seven-month deployment to Afghanistan in March, and went through the trainer on Thursday. He's also been through a similar one at the Marine Corps Ground Task Force Training Command at Twentynine Palms, Calif.
"It definitely brings back some memories," Daly said after completing the training. "A lot of the new people, they can't really grasp what it's like being over there."
Training like this, he said, should be required for Marines going over for the first time.
Vince Soto, site leader of the trainer for Orlando-based Innovative Reasoning, a contractor on the project, oversees the electronics from the dimmable lights to the simulated explosives triggered by careless feet. Soto is a retired sergeant major who says his goal as "the enemy" in the scenarios is to force the Marines to respond to events and people around them without letting those stimuli control them.
He expects the immersion trainer to get heavy use for as long as Marines from Camp Lejeune continue to deploy to Afghanistan. With U.S. troops expected to have only a supporting role in Afghanistan after December 2014, Soto is already looking ahead.
The interior walls inside the trainer, he said, can be completely reconfigured to look like somewhere else.