MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP PENDLETON, Calif.--I knew there might be firing in my direction. I was given protective gear. And they told me how to avoid getting in harm's way. And after all that, I still got shot.
Welcome to the Infantry Immersion Trainer, a system set up to help prepare U.S. Marines for possible future combat deployment. Set up in a former tomato packing plant at Camp Pendleton -- the West Coast home of the Marines -- the IIT employs "sets, sound systems and special effects -- including holograms and pyrotechnics -- to simulate [an Afghan] village in the midst of combat, reads an Office of Naval Research Web site about the system. "Equipped with [paintball]-like weaponry, Marines walk through realistic dwellings, alleys and other settings, encountering civilians and enemy combatants for a more realistic training experience."
I've come to Pendleton to see the Infantry Immersion Trainer as part of Road Trip 2012. But I'm not seeing any holograms. Instead, I've been given the green light to "embed" with any Marine squad I want as they make their way into the trainer and as they encounter armed surprises -- "insurgents" that will be launching sudden attacks, and firing at them from just about anywhere.
Of course, this being training, no one's firing real bullets. Rather, everyone's weapons are loaded with ammunition that is topped with a soap-like material and that is essentially a paintball. And in order to keep anyone from getting hurt, everyone inside the trainer is outfitted with a thick vest, a face-covering mask, and in the case of the Marines -- and myself -- a Kevlar helmet.
Today's trainees are members of the Marines' 6th Engineer Support Battalion. These are reserves based out of Tucson, Ariz., and Bakersfield, Calif. They're not infantry troops, but all Marines have to know how to fight, just in case. So they've come here.
Before the Marines can go into the IIT, they're given a briefing. There's boilerplate stuff about being aware of their surroundings, and slightly less boilerplate stuff about ignoring any rattlesnakes that might have wriggled into the trainer. And then there's the most important instruction of all: "No headshots." "I do not want to see anyone get injured," the Marines are told by a staff sergeant. "Got it?"
"Oorah," the Marines all yell in unison.
Although the IIT is about running through realistic scenarios, it's also about teaching the Marines to handle a variety of situations, and about them learning the right way -- and the wrong way -- to deal with urban combat. That means they need to not be afraid to screw up. "You're allowed to do any movement, and go to any positions you want," they're told. "If you're wrong, you'll be corrected."
And another thing: Their paintball-firing M-16s can injure if shot at someone less than seven feet away. So if they get the drop on an enemy closer than that -- or vice versa -- they're just supposed to call it out, and a referee will call that person a kill. "If you don't have seven feet," an instructor repeated, "don't shoot their ass."
The idea with the IIT is to put these Marines through the experience of patrolling what might well be a peaceful village or city, but which might also have soldiers wanting to kill them. The message is that everything is peaceful and calm -- until it's not. "When things happen," explained Major Lucas Castanos, "they're not very simple. They're complicated."
The training is pretty straightforward. The Marines enter the trainer -- either an outdoor section, or one that's indoors -- and are assigned to patrol. But they're aware of potential hazards including improvised explosive devices, bombs, or sudden sniper attacks. Still, they're supposed to be patrolling an area filled with civilians, and so a big part of the training is learning how to interact with these people -- played by non-military folks hired by the Marines: be polite, shake hands, say hello or good morning, but read their faces, looking for signs of danger. And when all hell breaks loose, handle it.
'What it's like to get shot at'
I'm talking with Capt. Jeremy Masten, an active duty Marine who is here to help oversee the training of the 6th Engineer Support Battalion, and he's explaining the notion of the force-on-force element of the IIT. "Every nation has its martial art," Masten said. "The American art is gunfighting. And there's no way to practice gunfighting (without doing it). So this is what it's like to shoot, and what it's like to get shot at."
Over outside the indoor trainer, an instructor named Darren is giving a bunch of Marines the lowdown: This is like a regular mission, he told them, so they need to rely on their teammates and communicate with each other. "You guys should be yelling at each other...If [you] do not talk, this s--t's going to fail."
As he goes through his instructions, it quickly becomes clear to me that Darren is one of the most profane people I've ever met. Almost every other word is a profanity. He's also got a fairly dangerous look behind his eyes. Yet I like him -- because he's clearly fair, and no nonsense.
He's also not afraid of getting hit by these special bullets. As the training begins, a squad enters the indoor facility, and begins walking carefully through narrow alleyways, on alert. Darren has told me where the shooting will begin -- in an open square at the far end of the trainer. There, a shooter in an elevated position will open fire on the Marines, who will have to instantly deal with the chaos.
Walking ahead, I find a good place to watch the action from outside the line of fire. And soon, the Marines emerge from the far side of the market. And then the shooting begins.
To my eyes, all is chaos. Instantly, at least two of the Marines are "killed," and the rest had to figure out how to suppress the shooter.
Over the next few minutes, the Marines run around, taking cover, coordinating with each other, and trying to flush out the shooter. Some are preoccupied with pulling the casualties out of the way. But that's not what they were supposed to do -- at least not right away.
A bit later, after the scenario ended, Darren gathered the squad for an after-action review. And he keyed on the Marines' having focused on dragging the body away. "Who's seen 'Full Metal Jacket?'" he asked. Several raised their hands. "Remember what happened when the female sniper shot the black guy? They left him there [and went after the sniper]. If you're f---ing dead, he's not going anywhere. No need to move him right away. We've got to suppress."
Another problem was that this squad had seemed pretty confused once the shooting began, in particular when it came to leadership. "Somebody's got to take charge," Darren said. "We had a bunch of chiefs running all over the place."
The group took it to heart, and afterwards, the squad went off to the side to do their own review, admitting that they had had a lot of miscommunication, and little coordination. "The main thing," instructed the squad leader, "let's all f---ing talk instead of everybody going out there and f---ing shouting."
Having watched two run-throughs of the indoor training, I moved to the outside training, where Marines had to patrol a much bigger area and deal with more complex threats. But it was still essentially the same drill.
Still, Capt. Masten felt like a squad about to go in needed a few pointers, specifically about how to adapt under extreme circumstances. For one, he said, they needed to be clear who would be the "doc" if there were casualties. As well, they needed to try to use directional language -- "3, 6, 9, and 12 o'clock" -- that would mean the same thing to everyone. They also needed a good system of hand signals, and a sense of the order of command if the squad leader went down. Plus a good set of phrases for things like suspicious people, or IEDs.
By now, as this squad walks into the "town," I'm feeling more secure, and I'm not as worried I'm going to get shot. I've learned how to stay against the walls, but encouraged by the instructors who seem totally unafraid, I started to get a little careless.
My spidey-sense went off, and I thought, "I'm about to get shot," but I ignored it. I rounded a wall, and moved forward. Suddenly, a shooter popped out from a corner across the street and started firing at the Marines near me. I was too far from cover, and I knew I was caught out in the open. Everyone had been told not to shoot at me, but what I learned was that in a firefight, instructions like this matter little. The shot was sudden, and I felt a sharp sting on my shoulder. For the rest of the day, I wore the bright pink splatter where the paintball hit as a mark of pride.