BUTLERVILLE, Indiana — Indiana National Guard soldiers stand guard atop a dirt hill in full battle dress, their eyes scanning the surrounding area for threats. Nearby are the signs of war: a car cut in half by a fallen radio tower. Twisted and wrecked cars. Houses reduced to rubble.
Inside the soldier’s cordon, American civilians festooned in body armor and helmets speak with two men in traditional Afghan dress in the middle of a mud-walled compound. An interpreter translates into Dari and Pashto. A campfire cracks in the damp morning air. Veiled women sneak shy glances out of a one-room mud-brick structure nearby.
This is not an American mission in Afghanistan but part of an exercise at the Muskatatuk training ground in Indiana for American civilians and soldiers who are preparing to go to Afghanistan. The 1,000-acre facility was once a state mental health institute for boys. The United States military now bills it as a “full-immersion contemporary urban training environment.”
The site hosts a number of disaster and emergency scenarios, including an area that simulates a nuclear explosion, in addition to the Afghan-oriented training. The week-long exercises have taken place every month since July 2009 and are used to train employees and contractors headed to the Central Asian country to work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development.
In the farm exercise, the participants role-play with Afghan-Americans posing as Afghans in Afghanistan. The Americans are to act as if they’re coming from a local provincial reconstruction team, or PRT, in Afghanistan. They are tasked with spreading better agricultural techniques. The "Afghan farmer" explains some problems he’s having and wants assistance with his crops.
After the exercise is finished, the American trainers and the Afghan role players give the trainees advice.
“I highly recommend you take your helmets off when you’re out here in the theater,” said Bruce Doobey, one of the trainers who worked as an agricultural representative at a PRT in Afghanistan’s violent Kunar province in 2009.
“You kept looking at the interpreter. Look at people when they’re talking,” Doobey said.
He pointed at the 20 troops surrounding the PRT team and the four vehicles parked nearby.
“You come out here, you need to get as much bang for the buck, because there are this many people involved when you take a mission,” he said. “You don’t get chances to come out to field visits like this. You might not get back here for another month, two months, you might get to this farm three times in a year.”
The point of Muskatatuk is to make it feel as real as possible so the trainees can hit the ground running.
“I think the people here at Muskatatuk have done an excellent job in replicating some vignettes,” said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Joey Tynch, a trainer who led a PRT in Afghanistan’s Kunar province until 2009. “If you look at this place, it’s a fine representation of an Afghan Farm. So considering we are in southern Indiana, it’s a good training ground.”
At lunch in the basement of one building, 45-year-old Garrett Menning said he was here to prepare for a year-long Afghan deployment with USAID. An Economic anthropologist by trade, he worked in Egypt and Cambodia doing small business development. But this was his first time working so closely with the American military.
“This is the first time working in a conflict country. So it’s all very new to me,” he said. “Even though it’s difficult for family reasons to take this job, I do believe that the cause in Afghanistan is a good one, and I think we need to develop the country to make Afghanistan a more stable country. [It] is good for our interests as Americans, and for Afghanistan, so it’s something I believe in.”
After lunch the trainees return to their role-playing. They drive in a “convoy” a few minutes away to one of Muskatatuk’s old run-down structures. It looks remarkably like an Afghan government building, which is what it’s supposed to be. A man who looks like Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s twin brother plays a provincial governor. The trainees talk to him and his bearded entourage about corruption. Then they go on a tour of the local "souq" — a mock up of an Afghan market, complete with Afghan vendors and anti-American graffiti. It’s a nightmare for the soldiers doing the security detail — a narrow street with two story buildings looming above them.
An explosion suddenly blasts through the market, and the American soldiers form a tight circle around the trainees, ushering them quickly back toward the vehicles. As they run, mock mortar shells whistle down on them and fake explosives mock both the sound and concussion of a real blast.
The veteran sergeant responsible for setting up the fake explosive charges says the blasts “bring back bad memories” from his very real combat deployment.
There are some lessons here. The trainees all but abandoned the provincial governor and his entourage as they tried to protect themselves.
“What about the governor? Or all the entire political leadership of the entire province?” asked trainer Dan Grant in the post-drill review. “If we’re going for hearts and minds, if Americans knock it off during saturation mortar strike, just keep in mind, it’s something to consider, that if in so doing you save the life of a governor or tribal leadership that could get you a lot of mileage.”
“You guys always leave us,” said the Afghan-American playing the governor. Everyone laughs.
The State Department trainee Ed Messmer said the Afghan-American role players were especially good.
“It was pretty realistic — I worked in Iraq — the way they do the issues. It was pretty darn good,” he said. “You could almost pretend you were in Afghanistan in that regard.”
That was the end of the day. The American trainees went to their mock “forward operating base” nearby, like they would in Afghanistan, in armored Humvees. In a few months, they planned to be doing the real thing, far from this quiet spot in Indiana, but hopefully better prepared because of it.