FORT IRWIN, Calif., April 28, 2011 -- Tracking insurgents might not be part of daily life for most on Capitol Hill, but for one group of congressional staffers last week, it was all in a day's work.

A delegation of 50 congressional staffers visited the National Training Center, or NTC, and Fort Irwin April 20-21, 2011, to learn about the NTC and to experience life as a Soldier preparing for deployment. The staffers work in the offices of senators and representatives from both sides of the aisle, as well as congressional offices and committees such as the Senate Armed Services Committee.

For two days, the staffers traded suits and offices for sand and desert camouflage uniforms as NTC leaders gave them an up-close look at the training rotational Soldiers experience here. Their jam-packed schedule included meals in one of Fort Irwin's dining facilities, demonstrations of the NTC's robotics capabilities, and a briefing on the NTC's function and role in the Army.

But for many in the delegation, the real highlight of their visit was spending the second day of it in "The Box," the training areas used to train Soldiers and units. After spending the night in augmentee billets, and for some, participating in physical readiness training, the staffers headed to the NTC's Medina Wasl village.

Decked out in DCUs, the uniform worn by Soldiers portraying the Iraqi Army in "The Box," the staffers were issued helmets, eye protection, and M-4 rifles. They were divided into platoons led by Fort Irwin Soldiers, who gave them a crash course in basic operation and maintenance of their weapons.

Like rotational Soldiers, the staffers were required to wear or carry all of their equipment throughout the day, a task made more difficult by the 55 mph winds that raged in the high desert.

"It was hard, and I'm sure it's even harder for the Soldiers," said Jami Burgess, who works in the office of Rep. Norman Dicks of Washington state.

The staffers observed rotational Soldiers during urban mounted patrol training in Medina Wasl, and then set about training for something few civilians get to do - completing an NTC training lane. The staffers' platoon leaders spent several hours instructing them on basic tasks they would need, such as moving in teams and squads and caring for casualties, before sending them into Medina Wasl to fend off role players portraying insurgents.

Afterward, the staffers received an after-action review from NTC and Fort Irwin leaders, including Col. Antonio Aguto, commander of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment.

"For having about five hours of training, you guys did a phenomenal job," said Capt. Karl Harness, officer-in-charge of Medina Wasl.

Educating the staffers on the NTC's role and on the lives of Soldiers preparing for deployment is extremely important, Aguto said.

"The staffers and the public deserve to see how their tax dollars are being spent, and that they're being spent well," he said. "They deserve to know what we do, and I'm glad to represent that."

Nadia Zahran, who works in the office of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said visiting the NTC changed her mind about the facility's importance to the Army. Before the visit, Zahran wondered whether all of the NTC's state-of-the-art capabilities were really necessary, she said.

"Going into it, I didn't grasp what went on out here," Zahran said. "But the biggest thing I've learned here is that you need that constant exposure to those situations. In terms of everyone saying, 'cut spending,' something like this is essential to what our Army does."

Mike Pasko, who works for Rep. Aaron Schock of Illinois said he was surprised by the size and scope of the NTC.

"I've always had a great deal respect for Soldiers, and this has enhanced my understanding of what they do 365 days a year," Pasko said. "It's been a great learning experience, and it's definitely opened my eyes."

Page last updated Thu April 28th, 2011 at 12:00