FORT IRWIN, California -- The training scenario here is designed to expose a unit's weaknesses but, for some Army Reserve units, it's a sobering reminder of just how difficult the National Training Center is to prepare for at home station.
Active-duty brigade combat teams that come here find themselves pitted against a formidable, armored enemy on rugged terrain that resembles some parts of Afghanistan with its jagged, rock-infused soil and wide open spaces.
Reserve units operate in the same training environment, but they are dependent on the support of an active-duty combat unit that they may never have worked with before.
"It's a bit of a challenge for some Reserve units," said Sgt. 1st Class Charlie Colato, an Army Reserve civil affairs noncommissioned officer serving as a guest observer-controller at NTC.
Colato has been mentoring teams from the 448th Civil Affairs Battalion out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, that have been attached to the 3rd Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team out of Fort Stewart, Georgia, for this rotation.
"It has been a frustration for them sometimes because civil affairs are enablers, so we are obviously not the main focus here. The maneuver units are, and so it's up to the maneuver units to figure out how to best utilize civil affairs, [psychological operations units] and whatever other enablers they have," he said.
Units have to do a "bit of a sales job" and say, "Hey, this what we can do for you," Colato said, adding that the elements of 2nd ABCT have been "supportive of the effort."
Maj. Kurt Hildebrandt, a civil affairs team leader with the 448th, said the rotation so far has been a challenging experience.
"We are trying to immerse ourselves in with a mechanized unit. ... The mission here is focused on fires and blowing things up," Hildebrandt said May 9 after units of the 2nd ABCT had liberated the make-believe, enemy-held town of Razish.
"We have to work from the back seat. This is not a [counter-insurgency] operation, so for us to kind of merge in and integrate with them is a challenge, but we are finding our way," he said.
Civil affairs units typically go into an area after the fighting is over and attempt to "build rapport with local leaders ... and the local populace," Hildebrandt said. "The biggest challenge for me is always trying to stay one step ahead of what units are doing ... figuring out where we should be and be most effective and kind of leverage what civil affairs brings to the table."
Hildebrandt's unit conducted a non-combatant evacuation operation (NEO) right after the fighting ended in Razish on May 8.
The civil affairs unit evacuated role-players portraying 40 American citizens and about 10 British and Canadian citizens, loading them aboard a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter and CH-47 Chinook helicopter, said Hildebrandt, describing the complex process of separating role-players posing as citizens from the rest of the population and creating a manifest for the flight.
"It fell on us, I think, a lot more than we thought it was going to initially, but it all went well," he said.
Hildebrandt said he now sees that doing rehearsal of concept (ROC) drills for an NEO at home station would have been helpful.
"Do ROC drills as a unit going through and actually in a parking lot -- say, 'Here, you stand here,' and literally kind of Bert and Ernie it down. And that is something that gets lost ... people get kind of afraid to do that at the basic level," he said. "Keep it really simple: This is what an NEO looks like. Do drills ... and walk through it."
Another challenge of NTC is that its vast training space spreads units out "so your communications equipment isn't as reliable as you hope it would be," Colato said. "And I think that is one of the challenges that comes in with the Reserve units, is they may not have all the equipment that the active units have, or it may not be as maintained as well."
Staff Sgt. Dan Dugal, a reservist and a permanent-party observer-controller here, said that NTC forces Reserve units to plan for contingencies that they may never have thought of before.
"Planning and integration is the biggest thing they will take out of this because it is not something they can do their home station," he said. "You have to think of different contingencies of what could possibly happen and then plan based on those contingencies ... things that you can't control."
For Colato, seeing what can go wrong at NTC is a lot better than learning those types of lessons in combat.
"Being sleep-deprived, being hungry -- those are the things that back home you are probably not going to put yourself through, but this place will put you through that, and it starts to impact your ability to make decisions," he said. "So, I think putting these guys through this kind of stress is good because you don't want the first time for them to encounter that to be on a real battlespace."
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at email@example.com.