Though time consuming, research is probably my second favorite part of writing. (The actual writing being my favorite. ;-)) While searching for an Army base in California for an early scene in my book, I found Fort Irwin, located in the desert outside of Barstow, halfway between L.A. and Vegas.
Besides its ideal location for what I wanted, I also learned about something really interesting at Fort Irwin. It’s called the National Training Center (NTC), and its mission is to provide a realistic training scenario to prepare soldiers for the sights, sounds, smells, and chaos of Iraq and Afghanistan before they actually get there.
They call it “going into the box”.
Designed by Hollywood set designers and populated with hundreds of actors, fake cities like Medina Wasl are the closest a soldier can get to the real thing. The actors in Medina Wasl (or one of the other 13 mini-cities used for training) each have a complete back-story and are never allowed to be out of character.
They are shopkeepers, police officers, homemakers, kabob sellers, or…insurgents. The weapons are real, but outfitted with a laser tag-like system to allow for a realistic feel without the bullets. Pyrotechnics provide for lifelike explosions and noise when attacks take place.
Soldiers spend several weeks at the NTC before shipping out to the Middle East. They go through the scenarios, make mistakes, go out and practice and train for a few days, and try again. Better to make mistakes in Medina Wasl than Kandahar or Baghdad.
If you’re an Army soldier on your way to the Sandbox, training in this box may just save your life. If you’re not, but you’d like to get a feel for what it’s really like, the NTC offers tours. Or check out this video.