FORT BLISS, TEXAS -- A ribbon of bleary-eyed soldiers slithers across the frigid landscape, footsteps drowned by the moaning wind. The overhead moon colors everything blue.
They walk in single-file, rifles pointed downward. Masks and goggles shield their faces from the stinging rain in the wind. Every movement brings them closer to their destination: An enclave of buildings where Iraqi insurgents are being trained.
It's 4 a.m. In a little more than an hour, the sun will rise.
That's when they'll pounce.
These soldiers are members of the Bravo Company of the National Guard's 1st Battalion, 184th Infantry Division, which includes troops from Lodi. They've spent the past three months here in the desert spanning Texas and New Mexico, training in mock Iraqi villages as they prepare for next month's deployment to the war zone.
Some of the training taught them to keep peace and coexist with the villagers they'll encounter in Iraq. Other times, they learned roles as policemen, making surprise patrol visits and running search checkpoints.
Now the troops are ready for the ultimate test as the final days of training wind to a close. Their mission: To attack the training camp at sunrise in a blazing barrage of blanks, secure the various buildings and kill any enemies who stand in their way.
They know it's not the real world: These bullets are all bang and no bite, and the insurgents are actually Army officers who have already done time in Iraq. The exercise is meant to prepare the soldiers for situations where the guns are as real as the live targets they'll be forced to shoot.
That, however, can't be replicated in any drill.
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"It's a gut check," says Capt. Kincy Clark, Bravo Company's commanding officer. "When the bullets are real, you know if some dude screws up, you could have a bullet in your back."
Earlier in the day, the insurgent camp raid isn't on Bravo's radar. It's early afternoon, and company brass has its sights set on a more familiar target: An Mullan, a village of tin sheds surrounding a makeshift mosque set deep in the New Mexico desert.
Spc. Alex Rodriguez, a North Stockton resident who works at Plummer Automall as a mechanic, stands guard during a training exercise in the New Mexico desert near Dona Ana Base Camp on Dec. 6. (Greg Kane/News-Sentinel)
This village has been a near-constant destination for Bravo's soldiers during the past few days. It began with a raid two nights before, followed by a visit to mend relationships with civilians. The troops returned yesterday under cover of darkness in a surprise patrolling exercise.
Clark and his officers gather around a dry erase board and a wall map at company headquarters. Using a red marker, he diagrams what is expected to be the group's final visit to An Mullan: a midnight attack to take out suspected insurgents hiding in the village.
They've got their reasons to suspect enemy activity, despite the olive branches that were passed back and forth between troops and village leaders in recent days. Suspicious characters that nobody in the village could identify had been spotted lurking in crowds. Each search of the village turned up weapons and bomb-making materials.
At one point, a soldier discovered a trip-wire on a road entering the village. It was attached to an explosive device that, in a real war situation, would have been deadly.
There is a difference between believing and knowing that a raid is justified, however. To search homes and detain suspects is one thing; to storm an area in a hail of gunfire is another, usually reserved for training camps or insurgent bases.
"You would never conduct a raid on a village with innocent bystanders," says Sgt. Chris Mitchell, an OC with the Army's 91st Infantry. "That wouldn't happen."
A gunner in a convoy leaves an exercise in the New Mexico desert outside Dona Ana Base Camp after being soaked with mud from a puddle. The dirt roads outside the base are filled with watery potholes, many unavoidable. (Greg Kane/News-Sentinel)
Clark decides to check out the situation in An Mullan. He assigns a few platoons to travel to the village, where they'll map out an attack plan while searching for evidence of enemy activity.
The bumpy route to An Mullan is now familiar to the eight soldiers riding in the rear of this rumbling truck. That doesn't mean they have to like it. They cry out in mock protest toward the front with each crashing dip, clutching for dear life on the more violent ones.
Before the transport left, Sgt. Raul Alvarado showed the troops a picture of a wanted insurgent: a young man in a checkered headwrap named Amir Abdul. The soldiers now joke about the suspect and other "villagers," who are actually El Paso residents earning $7 an hour to play the part.
One jokes that Abdul's real name is probably Martinez. Others kid about the truck's largely Hispanic racial makeup, referring to a scene from a South Park cartoon where minority soldiers are strapped to tanks in what military officials call "Operation Human Shield." The topic of Michael Jackson inevitably leaks into the ribbing.
These guys have grown into a family during the past few months. They joke around on their way to missions, ribbing one another with a locker room authority.
The camaraderie comes from spending so much time together, day-in and day-out. After a while, bunkmates and fellow platoon members become the people soldiers lean on for friendship and support.
"You become really tight," says Sgt. Gregory Dodds, a Bravo Company platoon leader. "This is your family. They're going to be there with you for most of the time in Iraq."
The jokes continue until the convoy arrives the hilltop overlooking An Mullan.
Soldiers crouch behind a wooden wall in an insurgent training camp during a sunrise raid exercise Dec. 6 in the New Mexico desert outside Dona Ana Base Camp. (Greg Kane/News-Sentinel)
Then it's back to business. Some dismount and take defense positions. Others flank the commanding officers as they walk toward the villagers gathered at the mouth of the rusted mosque.
Clark talks with the mayor while dozens of other soldiers spread out around the village. They're scouting new entrances and roadways that will allow them to sneak in during tonight's raid. A map is also being produced that shows the location of every building, making it easier to navigate at night.
One soldier notices a villager with his head down, trying to stay out of view from the troops. Suspicious, the troops ask the locals who have been trained as Iraqi police to detain the man for questioning.
He turns out to be Amir Abdul, the bomb-making suspect whose picture was circulated before the mission. Bravo soldiers had flagged Abdul for his shifty behavior during previous visits to the village. Now he kneels on the ground, hands cuffed behind his back while Clark asks questions through a translator.
Mitchell, the officer observing the exercise, pulls the sergeant aside. Abdul, it turns out, is not supposed to be considered an insurgent during this drill. Clark explains the reasoning behind making the arrest -- his proximity to bomb-making materials, his suspicious behavior, the fact that nobody in town knew who he was -- but it does no good. He is released.
"Just because they run away, it doesn't mean they're hostile," Mitchell says.
A soldier stands guard during a training mission in the mock village of An Mullan outside Dona Ana Base Camp in New Mexico on Dec. 5. In the background are outhouses used by the villagers, who are actually Spanish-speaking El Paso, Texas, residents. (Greg Kane/News-Sentinel)
Learning to live with what the soldiers call "cobs" -- civilians on the battlefield -- is one of the most important lessons to teach during these training exercises. What one soldier sees as shifty behavior could actually be simple fear of a man with a gun. A friendly villager, on the other hand, could be hiding a weapon behind his back.
Knowing the difference could mean the difference between life and death.
Change of plans
An Mullan is safe. The raid has been called off.
Clark breaks the news to his staff back at headquarters. It turns out that the work Bravo soldiers did in the village during the past few days led to the conclusion that a violent raid isn't justified.
After days filled with drills that led to nothing but standing around, the soldiers had been looking forward to the adrenaline rush a raid would bring. The gunfire. The explosions. The tension. Now they'll be forced to wait around the camp -- all because they did their jobs correctly.
"As fun as it would be, it would pretty much piss off the locals (to raid An Mullan)," Clark tells the soldiers. "The feather in our cap is that we've done everything right out there. We've mollified the citizens."
A soldier watches the New Mexico landscape for enemies after a convoy returning from a training exercise was ambushed. (Greg Kane/News-Sentinel)
Another raid is planned on a different village tonight, however. Alpha Company, also from the 184th Infantry, will attack a small village about 20 miles from An Mullan at sunrise. Alpha officials believe the village, a tiny enclave of four wooden buildings, is the site of a terrorist training camp.
One Bravo platoon is tapped to be fed into Alpha's raid. These soldiers, led by Sgt. Andy Tran, loaded their packs into the rear of a transport vehicle at 2 a.m. the next morning. They're part of an 18-truck convoy traveling north toward the site of the raid, which will unload with the rising sun.
Driving the Light Medium Tactical Vehicle is Pfc. Morrey Selck, an Elk Grove native and former mortgage broker. Selck is 40 years old. He joined the military a month after the Sept. 11 attacks.
When he goes to Iraq next month, Selck will have one of the most dangerous jobs that can be assigned in today's military: He'll drive fuel trucks in the war zone, refueling Humvees and other military vehicles. Insurgents can use these vehicles as rolling bombs.
Selck understands the danger of the job he's been asked to do. The recent Maritime Academy graduate hopes to parlay the experience into a job on a U.S. Navy tanker.
"I'm just going to fuel the vehicles as fast as I can," Selck says.
The ultimate choice
The soldiers have been standing on this icy, windswept plain for nearly an hour. They're waiting for the popcorn rattle of gunfire, a signal that Alpha's raid on the training camp has begun. Many of the troops came unprepared for the wet weather: Believing a report that called for dry conditions, they didn't bring any rain gear.
"Thirty percent chance of rain, my ass," one soldier mutters as they crouch in the darkness.
Pink begins to blossom in the distant horizon. In an instant, M-16s from 200 yards away begin to fire. White light flashes from their muzzles, breaking the darkness.
The soldiers storm through the mud and shrubbery toward the camp. To the right, Alpha soldiers lie against a small hill, firing on the buildings below. Pop! Pop! Pop! An artillery shell whistles like a firecracker, followed by a dull Crack! as it finds a target in the village below.
The troops sprint across the field toward four buildings arranged in a small valley. They hide behind the wooden wall of the one closest as they descend into the village. Pop! and another Crack! and the soldiers ask which way to go. There's confusion. Where is the fire coming from? Crack! Pop! Pop!
They're cleared to run across the square toward another building. Pop! Pop! The soldiers bang on a door. Iraqis are hiding inside. They open the door. They say they're innocent. Are they? Pop! Crack! Pop!
An OC in green fatigues screams at the soldiers. He says one of their comrades has been hit. That he's injured, laying out in the open, and needs attention.
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"Your man is down and bleeding!" the sergeant screams. Some troops head back toward the soldier, hit on the run through the square. Pop! Pop! Others crouch to protect the rescuers. Still others yell into radios, trying to communicate with other troops storming the area.
Slowly, the confusion dies down. Organization takes a hold. Soldiers bound from building to building in groups of five and six, making sure buildings are clear before posting guards at the door.
The camp is soon secured. Despite the initial cacophony, the raid is ruled a success. Soldiers carry their injured to paramedic transports on the village's edge. Those insurgents that weren't killed are taken prisoner.
Of course, all of them -- the dead, the injured -- will walk away when the exercise ends. That changes in a month, when the guns and bullets will be lethal. Tran can't say whether every soldier will be able to give and take live fire once they're in that situation. When it comes down to it, there's really not much of a choice.
"It's either us or them," Tran says. "Which are you going to choose?"
Contact staff writer Greg Kane at email@example.com.