FORT CARSON, Colo.—It is Brig. Gen. Bob Cone's job to help prepare America's soldiers for the realities of the war they are going to fight in Iraq, and he takes his job very seriously.
Cone, a native of Manchester, N.H., is commander of tactical operations at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif. There in the tan hills and sand of the Mojave Desert, he and his team make life really hard, really real, so that America's soldiers have a better chance of surviving a year in combat.
The 3rd Armored Cavalry, the Brave Rifles, based at Fort Carson, were due to train at Fort Irwin and then begin a second tour in Iraq. Their return to combat was speeded up, and suddenly there wasn't time to put all their hundreds of Abrams tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, and helicopters and Humvees on rail cars, travel to the California desert, train for a month, reload all the equipment, get back home and reload it on rail cars for a southern port.
So Bob Cone brought the National Training Center to Fort Carson. The team brought from Fort Irwin was made up of 700 soldiers to play the guerrillas and opposition forces, and a bunch of observer-controllers who referee war games. There also were 200 Iraqi-Americans to people a cluster of villages where the 3rd ACR officers and soldiers must do their difficult job of being warrior-diplomats.
Over 42 percent of the National Training Center's observer-controllers are combat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, and they are hard on the visiting teams of regular Army soldiers and National Guard soldiers.
The Opposition Forces (OpFors) teams are hard on them, too. So is Cone. So too are the Iraqi-Americans who role-play the mayors and imams (Muslim religious leaders) and sheiks of the villages.
This is all about teaching lessons that can save lives on all sides of a nasty, brutal war 7,000 miles away.
Cone and his people pull lessons learned—lessons paid for with the blood of American soldiers—from anywhere they can get them. Some formal ones are from the Center for Army Lessons Learned at Fort Leavenworth, which has liaison officers with every division in Iraq. Informal ones are posted on Army Web sites and soldier blogs.
Last week Cone sent a battalion of the National Training Center's permanent OpFors, the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment (Black Horse), off to combat duty in Iraq. Eight hundred of the Black Horse soldiers are now in Iraq, out of a total of 2,200 who will ultimately serve there.
Cone put them through a full training rotation at their own home post, this time as the visiting team, not the home team. And he was devious about it. He fought the war game on terrain never used in the regular training rotations. "The first rattle out of the box those guys got lost," he said, with a big grin. "We neutralized their advantage."
Bob Cone watches it all very carefully.
New soldiers, and some veterans, are learning about the fog of war and the terrible price paid in urban combat where even the simplest jobs can go south in a heartbeat.
In just six weeks the troops of the 3rd ACR, commanded by a Persian Gulf War hero, Col. H.R. McMaster, will leave Fort Carson for a faraway war. If Bob Cone and others from the NTC team have anything to do with it, the 6,000 soldiers will leave better prepared for what awaits them.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Joseph L. Galloway is the senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers and co-author of the national best-seller "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young