DONA ANA RANGE COMPLEX, N.M. - An Army National Guard convoy speeding through the New Mexico desert ground to a halt. It had come under fire from mock Iraqis hiding in the brush. Soldiers responded by firing blanks from Humvee-mounted machine guns while others jumped out of trucks to face the ambushers on the ground.
The convoy exercise Sept. 14 was part of a more than three-month effort to prepare Oregon Army National Guard soldiers to fight in Iraq. About 650 soldiers from the 3rd Battalion, 116th Cavalry, based in La Grande, and G Troop, 82nd Cavalry, based in Redmond, are slated to deploy to Iraq in early December.
Journalists observed the first of three convoy exercises, the first time the soldiers had participated in such training for Operation Iraqi Freedom. They fired blanks on the first run but were cut loose to fire live ammunition on subsequent exercises.
The convoy exercise, supervised by recently returned Iraq veterans, sought to teach soldiers how to deal with the ambushes and roadside bombs that have plagued U.S. troops in Iraq in recent months. A Humvee in the convoy nearly drove over a simulated roadside bomb during the exercise, and ambushers popped up from the brush to simulate firing at the convoy.
Every time the convoy came under attack, a truck or two would pull over to the side and return fire while the rest of the vehicles continued to advance. The convoy, on a simulated mission to deliver supplies, leapfrogged in this manner for miles.
At a post-exercise performance critique, Staff Sgt. Bradley Pierson clarified the high stakes of convoy performance once the troops arrive in Iraq.
"These guys want to kill you," Pierson said of the Iraqi insurgents. "They don't want to just stop you or slow you down. You always need to be thinking about that out there."
Pierson advised the Humvee drivers not to use their turn signals to help avoid detection and recommended soldiers use binoculars to find roadside bombs before they drive dangerously close to them.
He instructed the Guardsmen and women to simply drive through an ambush if possible rather than continue to provide an attractive target for the insurgents. Pierson also said the convoy needed to improve its communication.
"They just need to be a little more confident and know what's going on with the rest of the convoy," he said.
Staff Sgt. Travis Hogan, based at Fort Carson, Colo., added, "They've always got a few learning points after their first run. The whole point of this is to see what they need to improve and what they need to sustain."
The roadside bombs are a particularly important part of the training since news reports indicate that insurgents continue to use bombs the military calls Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) to deadly effect.
"We train every day for that stuff," said Spc. Kyle Willman, 23, a Pendleton native. "For the most part, I think we're pretty well-trained and good to go."
But another soldier, Spc. Mitchell Mathews, admitted he's worried about the roadside bombs.
"I have to say it makes you a little nervous," he said. "But it's probably good it makes you nervous because it makes you prepare better so you don't get into those situations."