By Elaine Wilson
American Forces Press Service
MUSCATATUCK URBAN TRAINING CENTER, Ind., March 8, 2011 - An incoming rocket explodes, shaking the earth and setting off a shockwave of activity.
A few soldiers, M-16s in hand, surround the civilians and rush them into a waiting convoy. They load up and the convoy speeds off just as another rocket goes off. A cloud of smoke envelops the rear Humvee as it trails into the distance.
A few feet away, a man shakes his head, unfazed by the flurry of activity around him. Although the scenario went well, the civilians, he noted later, entered the vehicles too slowly.
The expectations are understandably high here, particularly for the civilian students. For most of them, the training grounds here and at nearby Camp Atterbury will be their last stop before yearlong deployments to locations in Afghanistan and Iraq -- where the next attack they experience could be a real one.
"It's a very steep learning curve for some of them, particularly if they have no experience in this environment whatsoever," Rory Aylward, an instructor and subject matter expert on Afghanistan, said of the students. "It's ... like being thrown in a pool of cold water."
Each month, dozens of students converge here for the Civilian Expeditionary Workforce's predeployment course. The course aims to equip civilians with the skills needed to successfully support combat and humanitarian missions in Afghanistan, Iraq and other locations around the world.
Defense Department officials started the course in January 2010, about a year after the CEW formally stood up to augment military forces overseas. Although civilians had been successfully serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, officials recognized the need to better prepare them for the austere environments they'd encounter. With time and lessons learned, the class evolved into what it is today -– a once-a-month training course that runs the gamut from military familiarization to cultural sensitivities to dealing with the stressors of war.
The students are volunteers from around the world and with varying levels of military experience and expertise. Student Erin Dunn, for example, is an education manager for Joint Forces Command's joint public affairs support element as well as an Air Force veteran. Other students come from the private sector without the benefit of military knowledge, but with an in-demand skill, such as contracting or linguistics.
"I got out [of the Air Force] a long time ago, and in this stage of my life, it's not appropriate to go back," said Dunn, who is heading to Iraq after training. "This is an opportunity to serve in a way I would otherwise not get to."
Instructors have just 11 days to prepare this diverse and varied population of students for environments many haven't encountered or seen before.
The students spend the first week here, participating in classes and a series of scenarios that expose them to different cultures and ways of life. They're taught cultural awareness and sensitivities, personal security, counterinsurgency, command structures, how to work with an interpreter, as well as how to become part of a team comprising primarily military members.
The next week, students move to nearby Camp Atterbury, where they're taught how to operate a weapon, although most won't carry one, and take care of numerous details –- from finances to equipment -- required before they can deploy.
Still in her first week of training, Dunn had participated in an Iraq-based scenario earlier in the day. She and a few fellow students met with a provincial governor, played by an Iraqi citizen, to discuss topics ranging from stalled construction projects to security concerns. The governor, an imposing figure decked out in a suit and seated at the head of the table with a backdrop of an Iraqi flag, expressed his desire to see an engineering project completed, speaking through a translator seated just behind Dunn.
Dunn listened intently, occasionally taking a sip of her steaming cup of tea. She adjusted her bright yellow headscarf worn out of respect.
"We want that too," she said of the project's completion, nodding in agreement.
An evaluation team studied her every move. Although she performed well, they'll later dissect her performance so the next time she meets with an Iraqi official, she'll have even better odds of success.
Every touch in the room, from the Iraqi flag to cultural decorations, reflects the represented nation and the instructors' efforts to make the training as realistic as possible. Even the role players are authentic. All are Afghan or Iraqi citizens living in the United States.
The outside environment mirrors the same sense of realism. Each day the students travel by convoy here from an austere, mock forward operating base, called FOB Panther, about 10 miles away. As they drive onto the training grounds, they pass by a stark, white building trimmed in turquoise designed to resemble a mosque, a mock alleyway, and structures made to look like blown-up parking garages.
Mark Parsons, a civilian program manager on Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, and an Air Force veteran, said he and the other students felt a bit "awestruck" upon their arrival.
"I was expecting something a little more United States-ey," he said with a smile.
Like Dunn, Parsons soon will head to Iraq where he'll support overseas travel and training for Iraqi forces. He'll ensure Iraqis who are going to the United States for training have the proper security and travel arrangements, he explained.
"What we're learning right now is absolutely paramount to prepare us for going over there," he said.
Nycoca Hairston, an Army veteran, is familiar with the environment she's about to enter –- she served two tours in Iraq -- but still feels she has more to learn. She had just returned home last March when officials approached her to return again, this time as a civilian. In Iraq, she explained, she had served as the program manager of three reconnaissance management programs and was returning to help manage the logistics drawdown there.
"Being there for the first two years, I didn't receive this type of training –- the intensity, the in-depth [instruction on] culture, customs, land structures," she said. "I feel more prepared now.
"Just knowing the culture, the customs, is very important when interacting with [Iraqis]," she added.
The single mother of two said she will miss her family, but is proud to be a part of the mission, which she's dedicating to a fallen boyfriend -- Army Command Sgt. Maj. Jerry Wilson, who was killed in action in 2003 in Mosul, Iraq.
"I plan to go there and support the soldiers in his respect," she said. "Let me go over there and do it one more time."
In a few short days, the students will join the roughly 4,000 civilians deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan and about 500 civilians to other locations, such as Djibouti and Qatar.
Dunn said she feels more confident now about what lies ahead. But, as with service members, Dunn also must come to terms with what she must temporarily leave behind. She tears up when speaking about leaving her 9-year-old son, who she called "my north, my south, my east and my west."
"It will probably be harder for me than for him," she said of the separation from her son.
Dunn said she's inspired by civilians who step up to deploy, particularly those who have served and deployed before.
"They're making a sacrifice they don't have to make," she said.
Parsons said his wife and children supported him 100 percent, even though he'd already deployed multiple times during his Air Force service. They understand his passion for service and desire to serve, he said.
"I want to make an impact," he said. "I want someone to know that when Mark Parsons left that he served his country and he did all he could."
Dunn echoed his passion to serve. "I want to make a difference in someone's life with a mission that's bigger than me," she said.
Civilian Expeditionary Workforce
Muscatatuck Urban Training Center