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The (real) first day

Editor's Note: This is a series of blogs that will appear regularly between now and May 28. For the introductory entry in this series, click here. A Journal-World special report on the 1st Infantry Division's time in the desert will debut June 6.

Here at Fort Irwin, what was once a mock battlefield between American and Soviet forces, depicted by U.S. Army units dedicated to playing the enemy, is now a plot of 1,200 square miles made to look like Iraq.

Little villages like Medina Jabal have sprung up across the Mojave Desert. Thanks to Hollywood set designers, these villages - shacks and cargo bays - now have faux stone siding, carcases of battered Humvees and even Arabic-speaking populations to provide soldiers with scenarios they will face in real life, once they're deployed to Iraq.

I am embedded with the fifth squadron, fourth cavalry brigade of the 1st Infantry Division, stationed at Forward Operating Base, FOB, Denver. Embedded, by the way, is a term the Army uses for reporters living and working with troops. There are several news organizations at Fort Irwin, including a pair of documentary film students and Kansas City's NBC affiliate. Our sister station, KTKA, the ABC affiliate in Topeka, will be here later this week.

My first day at the base was spent in briefing after briefing, during which public affairs officials and unit commanders explained the history of Fort Irwin as well as the goals of units training here.

The 5-4 CAV is mainly a reconnaissance unit. At Fort Irwin, they're charged with gleaning intelligence from Iraqis -- played by real Iraqis living in the United States. They come here for almost three weeks of every month from places such as the San Diego suburb of La Jolla, as well as Detroit and Nashville. By one account, they're paid handsomely -- as much as $35,000 a month.

They are actors but they have no script. The Iraqi population is supplemented by American soldiers who wear the headscarves and robes seen on Iraqi men. For the two-and-a-half weeks these troops are in "the box" - simulating warfare in the desert - the attitudes of the Iraqi population will fluctuate. They will assist the U.S. soldiers, or turn on them, as they see fit.

It's the job of the troops to keep the population passive and, with luck, retain the population as an asset that helps apprehend insurgents.

On Monday, I headed out on a scouting mission with Apache Troop, a mechanized scouting unit. My liaison this week is 1st Lt. Jerad Hall, a 2002 Lawrence High graduate who was commissioned in 2006 as part of Kansas University's ROTC class. He's an intelligence officer and assists in coordinating the gathering and dissemination of information received by soldiers.

So far, the weather has been surprisingly cool. The 68 degrees my rental car's thermometer measured on Sunday is a stark contrast to the 100 degrees Hall said the troops faced when they arrived at Fort Irwin a week and a half ago.

The temperature on Monday didn't get above 70 degrees.

May 28, 2008

Notes from the desert


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