On the streets of Medina Wasl, merchants chant in Arabic, and a call to prayer blares over a loudspeaker. You can't understand the store signs, which are written in a foreign language. And you don't know who's your friend and who wants to kill you. The Iraq war has come to the United States.
"The only thing they haven't got down is the smell," said Capt. Jeff Vones of Clayton. "There is something very distinct about the smell in Iraq."
On 1,200 square miles in the Mojave Desert, members of the Army National Guard have just finished their final training before deploying to the real Iraq.
The Army's National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., is home to roughly 1,700 players -- 1,300 members of the "enemy," 250 Iraqi actors and 150 extras, in 13 mock villages. This month, they were challenging about 4,000 soldiers with the N.C. Army National Guard's 30th Heavy Brigade Combat Team, which leaves next week.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
Vones is leading 142 soldiers with Bravo Company, 252nd Combined Arms Battalion. Their time at the training center included a week at a joint security station called Razorback inside Medina Wasl.
"Everything we do here at NTC and everything we have been training up to, every attempt has been made to mirror what is going on in theater right now," said Vones, a state Department of Transportation employee.
Everything that the soldiers will have to do in Iraq for the next nine to 10 months has been replicated. From getting food and water to the soldiers to getting reports back to battalion headquarters, nothing is left out.
They work with the mock Iraqi army and police as they attempt to build relationships with the townspeople. Meanwhile, the opposing forces, played by soldiers based at Fort Irwin, try to disrupt everything they do with attacks.
For each action the unit takes, there's a reaction. If they miss finding an arms cache, those weapons will be used against them. If they accidentally "kill" civilians while in a fire fight, the locals will stop cooperating with the soldiers.
The only thing that's not real are the bullets. At the National Training Center, the weapons fire blanks and emit a laser beam. When a soldier is hit, medics open an envelope with a casualty card that describes their wound. What happens next depends on its severity. A flesh wound can be stitched up on site and the soldier returned to duty. More serious wounds require evacuation. And soldiers who are "killed" are temporarily sidelined.
"This is before we go to war," said Spc. Jeffrey Graver of Raleigh. "We have a wonderful asset here the Army has given us to learn all we can before get in country, and our job is to take in the knowledge and apply it once we get in Iraq."
Early in the simulation, Capt. Vones' soldiers were getting high marks from the opposing forces. "He has already pretty much disrupted the insurgents in town," said Capt. Scott Massmann of Fort Irwin and a troop commander for Medina Wasl. "He has already avoided two attacks."
"We're ready," said 1st Sgt. Jerry Jackson of Clayton. "No ifs, ands or buts about it."