ABOARD USS GUNSTON-HALL --
For a moment, Cpl. Christopher J. Harrell was stunned when he finally opened his eyes. The familiar stench of sulfur and burned magnesium overwhelmed his senses.
It was March, 2006. Harrell, a military policeman (MP), was escorting a logistics convoy from Al Taqaadam to Al Asad, Iraq, over a route notorious for insurgents and Improvised Explosive Device (IED) attacks. His up-armored Humvee was the lead scout vehicle.
Feeling a kick to his shoulder, Harrell looked up to his gunner's turret."There's somebody out in the desert!" Yelled the dusty Marine above the racket of wind, transmission and motor noises.
Harrell saw him, but the man quickly disappeared into the landscape.
Then, the front wheels, axle, and hood of his vehicle leapt skyward in a magnificent flash as an IED fashioned from five artillery shells and two gallons of diesel fuel hit its mark.
How close did these Marines come to death that afternoon? In one word, very. Radiator fragments lacerated the gunner's face, and the blast left Harrell bleeding from the ears with a stage II concussion.
This was one of four close encounters Harrell had with IEDs last year, one he escaped relatively unscathed, and one he thinks of often when training his fellow Combat Logistics Battalion 22 Leathernecks.
The CLB-22 MPs have been teaching their fellow Marines the fundamentals of convoy operations with the help of a new computer system lately, using a program that allows them to train virtually anywhere.
The Deployable Virtual Training Environment (DVTE) is a computer-enhanced training environment, kind of like virtual reality, said the CLB-22 Operations Officer, Maj. Ginger Beals. Within the simulator, the scenario master will hit the convoy with IEDs, small arms fire, or both to test the individual's Immediate Actions (IAs), or routine responses to a given incident.
Marines sat at the eight-computer network and acted out the different roles from driver and gunner to convoy commander and higher headquarters. They prepared their vehicles by loading weapons and fuel, sat through a convoy brief, and conducted a weapons test fire before leaving the simulated compound. The players practiced each detail of a real convoy no matter how small.
The room erupted into chaos when the convoy hit an IED.
"Are we lost or what? I can't see what's going on, talk to me,"asked the convoy commander after the attack.
"Our gunner's dead, we're pushing through. I repeat, vehicle one's gunner is dead."
Cpl. Jesse R. Hemphill shared experiences similar to Harrell's in locales like Ramadi, Fallujah, Baghdad, and the web of roads that connect them. This MP also teaches the lessons he has learned in combat to help prepare the next generation of Marines.
"Basically, everything we went through in Iraq, we try to put in the program,"said Hemphill, a Houston native. "You can create any scenario that you can possibly think of."
But, to someone who has been there, the DVTE has one major shortcoming.
"The only real difference is that you can't add a real sense of danger,"said Hemphill. "There will always be that real-life distinction of knowing it's a video game and you're not really getting shot at."
To help overcome this obvious limitation, two staff sergeants filled the role of full-time"stress inducers." The MP detachment commander, Staff Sgt. Wilfredo Declet, kept the players focused by ensuring they acted in accordance with set policy, and Staff Sgt. James Haynes, the motor transport detachment chief, was quick to halt the action when he saw a deficiency he needed to correct, or to make an important point.
"The stressful environment helps them think on their toes,"said Haynes, "it definitely helps their reaction times. We keep giving them obstacles like camels, civilians, terrorists and IED's, and then we drive home IA drills, (Techniques, Tactics, and Procedures) and communication to get everybody on the same page."
With their help, the program forces the vehicle commanders to communicate what they see through their computer screens back to the convoy commander, and conduct the appropriate IA drills in any given situation, explained Beals, an Illinois, native.
"If it's used the right way, it's more than just a game, it's a great training tool,"she said emphatically.
The most important skill to be learned from the training is communication, said Beals, and this is doubly important when it comes to cultivating a convoy commander. The DVTE helps develop convoy commanders by giving them the opportunity to control a convoy and communicate solely via radio.
"Since they can't see everything that is happening with all four trucks in the convoy, communicating over radio transmissions really allows our convoy commanders to build their (situational awareness),"explained Beals. "It's brought them together and instills more confidence in the convoy commanders and the Marines' in their convoy commanders."
Hemphill has seen the groups of Marines who have traveled through the trainer progress greatly and has enjoyed teaching them the new skills that may someday save their lives, he said.
"They just didn't have the knowledge or the training until now,"said Hemphill. "Watching people on the DVTE gives a big scope on what people don't know, and the last thing you want to learn (on the job) is something that can get you killed."
The Marines and sailors of CLB-22 currently act as the Logistics Combat Element of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) and are on a scheduled six-month deployment. The MEU also consists of its Ground Combat Element, Battalion Landing Team, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment; Aviation Combat Element, Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 261 (Reinforced); and Command Element. To learn more about the unit, visit its Web site at www.22meu.usmc.mil.