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Published: Sunday, 12/19/2004

Indiana 'battleground' preps GIs for war

BY ERICA BLAKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

CAMP ATTERBURY, Ind. - Army Reserve Spec. Mike Kean peered around, his cold hands tightly gripping the handle of the M-249 machine gun resting atop his Humvee, number seven in a convoy of eight.

He was providing cover as one of his fellow soldiers from the 983rd Engineer Battalion slung a soldier killed in action over his shoulder. He watched as men and women screaming Arabic edged closer and closer to another vehicle in the convoy that had been disabled by an improvised explosive device.

He also kept his eye on a pickup in the distance that a fellow gunner had sprayed with bullets after he saw hooded men standing in the bed firing machine guns in their direction.

Specialist Kean, 25, of the 983rd's Company B, was submerged in a different world among the plywood structures, barrel fires, and other conditions similar to those found in many small, rural Iraqi villages.

But the Monroe man wasn't in the Persian Gulf. He really was not that far from home.

An M-16 shell casing is ejected as Spec. Sharon Stewart, 24, of Toledo takes part in a training exercise at Camp Atterbury.
An M-16 shell casing is ejected as Spec. Sharon Stewart, 24, of Toledo takes part in a training exercise at Camp Atterbury.
MORRISON / BLADE PHOTO Enlarge

On the 33,000-acre grounds of the Camp Atterbury Joint Maneuver Training Center in Edinburgh, a small Indiana town about 20 miles south of Indianapolis and a 4 1/2-hour drive from Toledo, Specialist Kean and the other soldiers of the 983rd were being trained to deal with what they might encounter in Iraq.

And for members of the 983rd Engineering Battalion, Iraq - not home - is their next stop.

"This is the real deal. It's what we've trained for and what will keep us alive," Specialist Kean, the father of a 2-year-old boy, said of the convoy exercises that employ civilians, including Iraqi nationals, to act as villagers and insurgents.

The situation that Specialist Kean and his fellow soldiers encountered on a recent brisk afternoon in southern Indiana is something American forces are confronted with in Iraq every day. But in the war of Iraq, there are no blanks used, and no fake bombs.

In Iraq, when civilians approach a soldier, they could be a threat. In Iraq, when roadside bombs detonate, soldiers sometimes die.

"You control that battlefield over there; don't let them," Master Sgt. David Fields, an Army trainer, told members of Company B after the training exercise. "Watch out for each other, correct each other. Do your piece of the puzzle. If everybody does their piece of the puzzle, we'll get out of there."

Members of the 983rd Engineer Battalion, Headquarters Company, which is based in Monclova Township, leave the live firing range. Members of the 983rd Engineer Battalion, Headquarters Company, which is based in Monclova Township, leave the live firing range.
MORRISON / BLADE PHOTO Enlarge

The 983rd, which has an authorized force of 630, was mobilized this summer and reported to Camp Atterbury in late October. The battalion's headquarters and one company are based in Monclova Township. Another company is based in Lima, Ohio, and a third in Southfield, Mich.

The group is expected to be sent to Iraq before the end of this month for a one-year deployment - the unit's first deployment in an armed conflict since World War II.

The engineer battalion will serve as support for reconstruction efforts, such as building roads and infrastructure in Iraqi cities.

Also training at Camp Atterbury are about 480 members of the Ohio Army National Guard's 612th Engineer Battalion, based in Walbridge with companies in Tiffin and Norwalk, and the Ohio National Guard 211th Maintenance Company based in Newark, Ohio.

Capt. Mickey Avalos, 36, of Swanton is commander of the 983rd headquarters company. The assistant principal at Bedford High School, Captain Avalos said his troops have undergone significant training to prepare them for war. A reservist since 1990, Captain Avalos saw action overseas as a lieutenant during Operation Desert Storm. Many of his soldiers, he said, have not.

That's why the reservists have spent more than a month firing weapons, assisting simulated wounded soldiers, and learning demolition techniques at Camp Atterbury.

The camp is one of two training facilities in the country that have been mobilized to prepare troops for Iraq and Afghanistan, said Maj. Mike Brady, the camp's public affairs officer. Since February, 2003, the training center has deployed more than 17,300 National Guard and Army Reserve soldiers.

The training center also has provided support training and facilities for other military service branches, including the Navy SEALs, Marines, and Air Force, as well as local law enforcement and first responders.

Iraqi native Raisan Al Shimray, shouts in Arabic at Sgt. Shane Sanderson during a simulation of a convoy attack. The exercise is designed to prepare soldiers for situations in Iraq. Iraqi native Raisan Al Shimray, shouts in Arabic at Sgt. Shane Sanderson during a simulation of a convoy attack. The exercise is designed to prepare soldiers for situations in Iraq.
MORRISON / BLADE PHOTO Enlarge

On the defensive live fire range at Camp Atterbury, Spec. Sharon Stewart, 24, of Toledo dropped to the ground with her M-16A2 in hand and shot at pop-up targets in the distance. She emptied her magazine - 20 rounds - and looked back as squad leader Sgt. Richard Hatch ran behind her asking soldiers how much ammunition they had left.

"We're black," he told his soldiers, referring to the military term signifying less than 10 percent of ammunition is left.

"We're toast. Get your bayonets out," he joked.

Sergeant Hatch, 36, a husband, father of two young children, and surgical technologist at St. Charles Mercy Hospital in Oregon, said training is where the kinks are worked out.

"We try to get as much training as possible in what little time we have," the Lambertville resident said.

Specialist Stewart, an Owens Community College nursing student, said the training has been vital in preparing her and her fellow soldiers for what lies ahead in Iraq. The mother of a 21-month-old son, she said she's convinced her battalion will be successful overseas and is confident everybody will return home safely.

But she knows she won't be home for Christmas, a reality she's still getting used to, just as her aunt is getting used to caring for her toddler while she is deployed.

"In terms of training, I'm ready," said the 1998 graduate of St. Ursula Academy. "Mentally, it's still kind of unbelievable that I'm going."

Lt. Col. Kevin McLinn, commander of the entire 983rd Battalion, returned recently from a two-week trip to Iraq, where he was briefed on how to ensure a "seamless" transfer of power from the Cincinnati-based 512th Engineering Battalion that soon will be on its way home.

"Everybody is waiting to hear what I learned: 'How is the food? What are the living conditions? Did I get shot at?' " said Colonel McLinn, 44, of Indianapolis.

"The food is fantastic, and no, I actually never got shot at," he said.

Major Brady said the Army constantly updates training exercises based on feedback from soldiers serving in Iraq. This gives newly deployed soldiers the chance to anticipate what lies ahead.

Soldiers with the Southfield, Mich.-based B Company of the 983rd Engineer Battalion receive their after-action report at Camp Atterbury Joint Maneuver Training Center in Edinburgh, Ind. Soldiers with the Southfield, Mich.-based B Company of the 983rd Engineer Battalion receive their after-action report at Camp Atterbury Joint Maneuver Training Center in Edinburgh, Ind.
MORRISON / BLADE PHOTO Enlarge

For members of the 983rd, who last saw their families over Thanksgiving, the lessons learned at Camp Atterbury are designed to keep them alive.

"This type of training has been brought on by experiences of soldiers right out of the country," said Staff Sgt. Michael Bodine, 39, formerly of Clyde, Ohio, and now a resident of Fort Wayne, Ind. "It's vital to integrate this into training."

On the grounds of the mock Iraqi village, more than a dozen people stood around waiting for the first convoy of Humvees to drive through. The civilians on the battlefield - are contracted by the military to serve as actors creating situations soldiers will come across in Iraq.

The soldiers drove through once, weapons ready, and were greeted by a waving and cheering crowd. Some soldiers waved back.

The second time through, however, things turned nasty.

There was an explosion simulating a roadside bomb and training officers stopped one of the convoy vehicles. "You've just been killed," a soldier was told.

Hiding in the plywood structures, actors portraying Iraqi villagers recognized their cue to approach the convoy to verbally harass and physically confront the soldiers.

Raisan Al Shimray, a tall and imposing man, led the way. Mr. Al Shimray left Iraq after Saddam Hussein's forces invaded Kuwait in 1990. After spending nearly eight years in Saudi Arabia, Mr. Al Shimray came to the United States. He became an American citizen on Aug. 7, 2003.

This fall, while working at a Cracker Barrel Old Country Store and Restaurant in Kentucky, Mr. Al Shimray learned from a friend that the Army was looking for civilians to help train soldiers. He signed up, and has been teaching his fellow actors Arabic words to make the training more authentic.

"I want to give you help," Mr. Al Shimray told the 983rd soldiers as he approached them during the convoy exercise.

Sgt. Shane Sanderson, the platoon sergeant, asked him to back up, yelling above the jeering crowd that his soldiers "will be out of your area in a minute" and to "please be patient, please give us room."

Mr. Al Shimray said he saw the perplexed look on many soldiers' faces during the exercise. Though it was just training, the gravity of the situation was clearly not lost on the participating soldiers.

Nonetheless, Mr. Al Shimray was able to pull a big smile out of Sergeant Sanderson, who carried an unloaded M-4, a shorter version of the M-16A2 rifle. In between several loud outbursts in Arabic, Mr. Al Shimray jokingly repeated in a thick accent:

"Please don't shoot me. Please don't shoot me."

Contact Erica Blake at: eblake@theblade.com or 419-724-6076.



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