FORT PICKETT, Va. -- The still air pressed in on them as they slowly crept amongst the bleak cinder-block buildings. A faint crackle of gravel shifting under step accompanied the buzz of foreign chatter. The Marines eyed every person and all angles in the grey city as they moved, wary of the imminent dangers lurking on rooftops, behind windows and doors, and hidden in any piece of garbage that lined the bomb-strewn wasteland.
An ear-splitting concussion rang out without warning, and immediately the stunned men ducked behind cars, walls and corners. They raised their weapons to counter the sudden flood of precision sniper fire. The familiar, acrid smell of the detonated improvised explosive device hung thickly in the air as the dust began to settle.
The Marines and sailors of Company I, Battalion Landing Team, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, recently tackled an urban training evolution at Fort Pickett. This training uses Hollywood special effects teams, makeup artists and real Iraqi role-players to leave each Marine with a realistic taste of war.
"Literally, when that IED went off, I felt like I was back in Iraq," said Lance Cpl. Joe W. Dougherty, a New York native. "I think the junior Marines who have never experienced it are definitely feeling what we felt in some ways."
Dougherty, a rifleman, is an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran whose previous deployment took him to the rough streets of Ramadi.
"The reality of it is that you experience what it is like to walk through Iraq," said Dougherty "It's right on point. It's like walking through the streets of Ramadi."
Retired Gunnery Sgt. Dirk J. Lens was responsible for coordinating the role-players and worked with unit leadership and the San Diego, Calif., based group Strategic Operations to help train the unit for later evaluations.
"It's all about the Marines and we do whatever we can to make it as realistic as possible," said Lens. "We use Hollywood special effects teams and special effects makeup to realistically recreate [Vehicle-Borne IEDs], IEDs, [Rocket Propelled Grenades], sniper fire, and pretty much anything else they could encounter in combat."
Lens mentioned that 85 to 90 percent of the role-players are former Iraqi nationals, and many of them have seen these types of operations first hand.
"They obviously love America, because they live here," said Lens. "This is their way of giving back and helping the troops for affording them this freedom."
According to Cpl. Jason Dobbs, a squad leader with 1st platoon, the role-players and special effects gave the Marines a good idea of what they could run into if the unit does go back to Iraq.
"When a lot of these new guys get to Iraq, they aren't going to know what hit them," said Dobbs, a two-time OIF combat veteran. "I've trained at (Military Operations in Urban Terrain) towns before, but the role-players and the special effects make it feel like I'm actually in Iraq right now, like I'm actually fighting a war."
The special effects team used boxes, dust and cork "rocks" to camouflage the explosives. The explosions were radio controlled to allow the Marines a chance to spot the IEDs before they went off to help develop their eye for discovering traps in a din of distractions.
"It makes you ask yourself, what steps do I go through if an IED does go off?" said Dougherty. "I will try to get organization into the chaos that it creates."
Dobbs observed that this experience has hit home for many of his Marines, and he believes that this training is worth every penny.
"They teach Marines certain things about combat in the infantry training schools, but until you actually get to your unit and go to combat, all you know is what you hear from senior Marines who have already been there," said Dobbs, a Cool Springs, Fla., native. "They might think, 'wow, they saw a lot of things over there,' but they won't actually realize what we did until they experience it for themselves."
Dobbs said that before the pre-deployment training hit home, at times advice to his Marines could go in one ear and out the other. This small taste of combat has caused a marked difference in the seriousness of his Marines.
"Now I see the difference in their faces when I say, 'look, there's real-life danger over there and you've got to watch your back and the Marine next to you constantly, because this isn't about all the stories you've heard, it's real life,'" said Dobbs. "A lot of these guys are so young they join for the uniform or this or that, but hopefully now they know that putting on this uniform isn't a joke."
The 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit consists of its Ground Combat Element, Battalion Landing Team, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment; Aviation Combat Element, Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 261 (Reinforced); and Logistics Combat Element, Combat Logistics Battalion 22. For more information about the 22nd MEU, visit the unit's website at www.22meu.usmc.mil.