By Staff Sgt. Mike PryorMarch 3, 2009
Inside a dark and dusty barn, two paratroopers were on the hunt for hidden weapons. Chickens and baby goats scrambled under their feet as they searched every nook and corner of the building.
Then, as one of the troopers sifted through a pile of hay, a furry, long-necked beast the size of a small horse emerged from the shadows behind him.
"Dude, is that a llama'" the surprised paratrooper asked his buddy.
In order to prepare for combat, the 82nd Airborne Division's 2nd Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment at Fort Bragg, N.C., spared no expense to make their recent situational training exercise as realistic as possible - even importing exotic barnyard animals to simulate what paratroopers might encounter when they deploy to other parts of the world.
The exercise featured dozens of role-players, two simulated villages, multiple training scenarios, and, yes, a llama.
"The more realistic the training is, the better it will stick in the minds of the paratroopers, so that when they do deploy they'll be ready for any mission," said 1st Lt. Matthew Reid, of Des Moines, Iowa, who played the role of a village chieftain during the exercise.
The training was designed to test the paratroopers' ability to operate in situations where the lines between civilians and enemy forces are constantly shifting. Each scenario put a platoon of paratroopers in a situation that could have a very different outcome depending on the attitude the paratroopers displayed and the methods they used with the role-players. The platoons that interacted successfully were given intelligence allowing them to capture a high-value insurgent target.
In a scenario that took place at an old farm, Reid played a village chieftain with knowledge of local insurgent activities. How much of that knowledge he shared with the paratroopers, however, depended on how they approached him.
"The key is to be respectful," Reid said. "Good intelligence comes from having a rapport."
When 2nd Lt. John Hall arrived at the farmhouse with his platoon from Company B, he made sure to treat Reid as a potential ally, not an enemy. He sat down with Reid for a cup of tea and made sure not to show any disrespect by keeping his Soldiers away from women in the village. He even had his platoon sergeant help gather wood for the village cooking fire. Before long, Reid was telling him everything he wanted to know about the insurgent group in the area.
"Once we developed a good relationship I started divulging information about the enemy," Reid said.
Afterwards, Hall said that the realism of the scenario gave him a better idea of what his platoon would encounter on a real deployment.
"If we know what's going on downrange and we train like we're downrange, then we're more prepared. You train like you fight," said the Chapel Hill, N.C., native.
Sergeant Stephen Carpenter, a squad leader in Hall's platoon from Syracuse, N.Y., said he was surprised by how realistic the scenario was, even down to the little details.
"It was just like real life," Carpenter said.
Getting training as close to the real thing as possible is important, Carpenter said, because it means Soldiers will need less time to get accustomed when they actually get downrange.
"They need to see it so they can recognize it later. If you recognize it, then you'll react in the right way," he said.