FORT HUNTER LIGGETT, Calif. - As night descends across the California wilderness and other units bed down in their bunks, U.S. Army Reserve soldiers of the 342nd Military Police Company are participating in a cordon and search simulation as part of Combat Support Training Exercise (CSTX) 91 13-01 on April 15, 2013.
The exercise, which gives participating units an opportunity to apply their military occupational specialty skills and rehearse military drills in a simulated theater of operations, is set to take place in the mock village of Cedal, where there are believed to be hostile personnel in possession of bomb-making materials.
The search involves two companies of MPs and is designed to test the soldiers on everything they have learned related to their job.
"It's important for us to be able to go in there and support units such as infantry units. We need to be able to get down and dirty just like they do," said 2nd Lt. Alex M. Dulac, the acting executive officer for the MP company as well as the leader and architect behind the operation. "Just because we're MPs doesn't mean we're only going to be doing police things - we're going to be getting into the meat of the action."
With their armored Humvees lined up and prepared to depart from Base Camp Schoonover, the MP soldiers rally together for a motivational talk from the Army chaplain.
Armed with various weapons including M4 carbine rifles, M240 machine guns, body armor and night vision goggles, the soldiers bow their heads in prayer while the chaplain speaks of victory and the hard training which has led up to this moment.
"As the inner search cordon, we did a lot of glass-house training, and we did a lot of casualty training. If any of our troops are, unfortunately, hit in any way, we want to be sure they are taken care of," said Spc. Tyler Shields, a squad leader for the company.
The ride is long and dark. Dirt trails take the Humvees through rolling hills and dense forests. Occasionally the convoy crosses over a small stream filled with the chatter of frogs and crickets. As the vehicles near the village, drivers turn off their lights to avoid detection.
Upon reaching Cedal, soldiers dismount their rides and begin to push across the village from one side to the other. The action is almost instantaneous: a series of explosions rock the village, followed by the distant chorus of automatic weapons. This attack sets the tone for the rest of the night.
"I think they realized we were coming from the same direction," said 1st Sgt. David Brockett of Delaware, Ohio. "Our right side got pinned down, and it seemed like our left side was doing pretty well until (we) started taking casualties."
Amidst the chaos and gunfire from enemy combatants, the MPs advance, clearing the village building by building. Squads of soldiers stack up together and kick down doors using close-quarters combat techniques. For support, Humvees swing through the center of the village to provide cover and extra firepower.
After several minutes of shooting, bounding, and room clearing, the MPs claim their prize: a large stash of bomb-making materials and several detainees. The victory is short-lived however, as the observer controller/trainers (OC/Ts) decided to introduce a new twist to the operation.
Fireworks begin bursting inside the village, ignited by the OC/Ts to simulate enemy artillery rounds. Soldiers shout, "Incoming!" as the village is periodically lit up by pyrotechnics. Chaos and confusion ensue.
"I was anticipating what happened, but once it happens, it's still overwhelming, " said Dulac.
Dulac must now face a difficult decision every leader fears: push on to accomplish the mission while putting troops at great risk, or fall back and lose everything they have fought for tonight. He chooses the former, and later regrets his decision.
"I chose to continue on when we probably should have pulled back sooner. The pros didn't outweigh the cons," Dulac explains after the mission. "We took a lot of casualties."
As simulated rounds continue to pulverize the village, the MPs attempt as best they can to collect their fallen comrades and move through the village in an organized manner.
With enemy combatants having ceased their small-arms attack long ago, darkness and confusion now prove to be the MP company's worst foe.
Finally, after nearly 10 soldiers are lost, the order is given to retrograde from the village.
After the last of the MPs leave the village, the OC/Ts call an end to the mission. There are several war cries from the troops as everyone begins to reorganize and clean up.
Just as they began the mission, the MPs end their night by gathering together, this time to conduct an after-action review with the OC/Ts.
Here, they walk through what happened, what went right and what they could have done differently. Several ideas are put forward, including a quicker withdrawal from the artillery and the rehearsal of casualty evacuation to help prepare for such events.
Although they are cold, dirty and exhausted, the troops still smile and cheer, as the OC/Ts inform them that they have performed well, given the extreme circumstances thrown their way.
They explain to the MPs of the 342nd that it's better to learn from mistakes here than overseas. They are learning how to navigate through the dangers of combat missions and taking casualties, without having to experience it with real consequences.
When viewed from that perspective, their mission went off without a hitch.