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
Thursday, March 10, 2011
By Marine Corps Cpl. M.C. Nerl
Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center
TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif, March 8: For Lance Cpl. James Grove, a member of the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center's Wounded Warrior Detachment here, conventional methods of rehabilitation don't cut it.
"When I was having feelings that normal physical therapy had hit a plateau," the Sellersville, Pa., native said, "I decided I wanted to take a different avenue."
He turned to an alternative offered through his command, competing in the inaugural Marine Corps trials for the Wounded Warrior Games.
Wounded, ill and injured Marines like Grove, along with other wounded from the U.S. and allied nations, gathered at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., Feb. 17–27 for the trials, where they competed in multiple events to claim gold, silver and bronze medals.
"It's far less conventional," Grove explained. "We've played a lot of sports, and I've had a great experience."
Grove, who competed in swimming, archery and wheelchair basketball, added that while he wasn't always a basketball player, he was a fan of the other two sports before he was injured.
"I picked swimming and archery," he said. "They were things I was interested in and did before I was injured. [I picked] basketball because of the team aspect. It sounded like it would be a lot of fun."
Carla Decker, a volleyball coach at the trials, said working with athletes like Grove was an enriching experience.
"I was glad to get the opportunity to come here and meet these fantastic people," she said. "I want to keep these athletes as my friends forever. I feel like I've made a thousand brothers while I've been here."
Decker said working with the wounded, ill and injured has helped her understand a world that was previously unknown to her.
"Working with any of these brave men has given me a chance to understand who they are and the sacrifices they make for our country," she said. "It's really incredible to see young men like this who have already overcome so much in their lives. I'm honored to have been able to come here and work with them."
Australian Defense Force Warrant Officer Class 2 Dennis Ramsay, a member of the allied team at the trials, testified from his own first-hand experience to the spirit of younger men like Grove.
"Well, having both of my legs amputated was incredibly tough," Ramsay said. "They take great care of all of us. Seeing a lot of the young Yanks and others with something that would wreck someone psychologically is a bit overwhelming at first."I know, though, that all these kids are pretty tough," he added. "I've met a lot of strong young men who have shown me a thing or two. It's good to see, and everything really has been a great boost not just in confidence, but reassuring for our future as well."
By Air Force Master Sgt. Jim Fisher
17th Air Force
SOUDA BAY, Crete, March 7, 2011 - The team projecting humanitarian airlift missions into North Africa entered its fourth day of operations today, taking satisfaction from the more than 450 displaced Egyptian citizens ferried home from Tunisia.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Ashley Vazquez, a command post controller with the 435th Air Mobility Squadron, has been working with teammates on everything from tracking people and equipment to building flight plans.
"We track all the personnel and aircraft -- we track flights, we set up all the communications equipment, making sure that we can talk to our flight crews in the air," she said. At Souda Bay, Vazquez is part of the 435th Contingency Response Group, based at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. Known as the 435th Contingency Response Element while on Crete, they make the mission happen alongside airmen from the 37th Airlift Squadron.
"We just make sure everyone's taken care of while they are here," Vazquez said.
Much of this work is not captured by newsreels of evacuees gratefully touching down in Cairo, but is vital to making it happen, said Air Force Lt. Col. Charles "Doc" Schlegel, the contingency response element commander while deployed here and 435th Air Mobility Squadron commander at Ramstein.
"There are a lot of little things that must be done for us to be able to fly these missions," Schlegel said. "These guys have done a fantastic job, and when you see us on the news bringing people home safely after they have fled the conflict in Libya, you are only seeing part of the piece of the overall effort. Our whole teams, including our CRE element, aircrew, ravens, public affairs specialists and many others have all been crucial to the success of this important humanitarian mission."
Flexibility and versatility have made it possible for the small team -- fewer than 30 people are currently supporting the mission at Souda -- to get a lot done, said Air Force Staff Sgt. Justin Hairston, an air transportation craftsman with the contingency response element.
"We're a small unit, and we use cross-utilization training," he explained. "Everybody works together; everybody knows a little bit about everybody else's job. You have your subject matter experts, but everybody helps everybody out. That's what makes the [contingency response group] great," Hairston said.
Though their work is behind the scenes, the footage making network news in the United States and Europe is what makes it all worth it, Hairston said.
"Personally, my satisfaction comes from seeing these people getting home," he said. "It's nice to be a part of something like this. A lot of times you see things like this on the news, but to actually be a part of it, I feel very fortunate, very blessed to be here to help these people."
The airlift squadron and contingency response element did not fly today, waiting for further requests for assistance as part of the larger U.S. government and international effort to relieve suffering in the wake of the crisis.
"We are happy with what we've been able to get done so far in support of our State Department and U.S. Africa Command [missions]," Schlegel said. "We are standing by for more."