CAMP PENDLETON — Charlie Company 3rd Platoon, 2nd Squad of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines based in Twentynine Palms, Calif. entered through the gates leading into the mock-up village of Now Zad, Afghanistan, facing a scenario that they might just encounter in real-life once deployed.
The squadron had just entered the IIT (Infantry Immersion Trainer) at Camp Pendleton.
It wasn’t long after that they encountered gunfire and casualties. Villagers ran screaming into the buildings that made up the town. Confusion and chaos had set in – the training had begun.
“The infantry immersion trainer is a hyper-realistic facility that provides a physical setting, in buildings, live role players and the use of actual weapons modified to fire a 9mm paintball,” said retired Marine Maj. Tom Buscemi, Jr. He was the director of the battle simulation center on Camp Pendleton and had helped to implement the construction of the IIT in 2007.
The intention behind constructing the facility was to inoculate the infantryman, through the sights, sounds, smells and chaos of combat, Buscemi explained, so that his first or next gun battle was no worse than his last simulation.
The facility was meant to be comparable to the Navy’s aviation simulators. The IIT was built in two phases: Phase One, constructed in 2007, is a 25,000-square-foot indoor facility built from an abandoned tomato processing plant, which hosts a mosque, a marketplace and several dwellings.
Phase two, the outdoor facility, was constructed in 2010. It contains 59 buildings and is based, generally, on the Afghanistan village of Now Zad in the Helmand Province. The mock-village has multiple stone-like abodes for Marines to conduct searches in with the assistance of their Afghanistan police and security forces counterparts, narrow alleyways that often lead to dead ends and market places.
Much of the research to build the facility came from a San Diego-based company called STOPS (Strategic Operations), which had built a smaller combat town, based on a Hollywood-type production, on land owned by MCAS Miramar, Buscemi explained.
“The most immediate information came from people that had recently returned from fighting in Fallujah (Iraq) and Ramadi (Iraq) and their actual combat experience was applied to how the buildings in the IIT were arranged and how targets were to be addressed,” he added.
To this point, 33,000 Marines have trained at the IIT since it opened, said Matt Fennel, operations manager. Fennel is just one of the contractors who work the IIT. The staff that runs the facility is all contractors, with the exception of some of the Information Technology personnel, he explained.
Each unit receives only one day of training due to the high cost of running the facility, with most of the expense going to the role players, which they have on site every day.
Training missions are tailored specifically to the unit, based on what the unit commander sees as necessary. Scenarios can be adjusted as the missions begin.
“It’s experiential learning,” Fennel said. “It’s got to be challenging enough so that it’s hard for (the unit) to solve the problem. It can’t be so hard that they struggle and they end up losing, then it’s detrimental to their morale and it’s detrimental to the training.”
“For veteran guys that have gotten blown up before, it’s close enough to replicate that, Fennel said. “And then you’ve got the other guys, these young guys that have seen movies and they think what’s going to happen in the movies is going to happen in there and guys go ‘black’ in there.”
The “black” Fennel refers to corresponds with the Jeff Cooper Color Code, which relates mental states of awareness to the degree of peril. “Black” refers to a complete mental and physical breakdown in performance.
“You certainly don’t know what’s going to happen,” Buscemi said. “You’re supposed to burst into a room and there may or there may not be someone there. It’s intended to be intense. We’ve had people go into shock, a mild shock…we’ve had people get nauseous seeing the role players with the prosthetic devices for amputees, pumping make-believe blood, but still pumping blood.”
All of the scenarios are recorded on cameras placed throughout the facility. Each squadron performs a video debriefing following the mission.
Buscemi told of an instance where a Marine infantry captain, just returned from Afghanistan, said that having been in the IIT prior to deploying had definitely saved lives.
“The best repository is units,” Fennel said. “We sit down with battalions when they get back…and one thing that we’ve found out over and over again is every company has a very different experience. (There are) four companies in the battalion, every company will tell a different story on what they saw from the people to the enemy to the Afghan Security Force.
“So within that, the recurring theme has been brilliance in the basics, and they just have to adapt once they get there to that specific area of operations. And that’s been the case with every battalion since ’09,” Fennel said.
Some of the things that can’t be replicated within the IIT are the actual physical trauma, no one gets hurt, and the emotional or psychological trauma of seeing a comrade killed or maimed.
There are two other IIT facilities on Marine bases, one at Marine Corps Base Hawaii, the other at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
As for plans to expand IITs further, it’s a difficult question to answer, Buscemi said. “It really is an issue of proposed cutbacks and government spending. Building something bigger and better, right now is a difficult venture.”