In the distance a mushroom cloud filled with fire, smoke and debris erupts just outside a small town in the middle of the Mojave Desert; the faint sound of voices can be heard and the outline of people moving about – quickly – can be seen.
In the minutes following, Soldiers slowly made their way through the town – a Hollywood-like set built to simulate the many possible deployment locations for America’s armed forces. Each man and woman focused intensely on their mission at hand, to secure the town. In the process, they were greeted with more explosions, rocket propelled grenades and gun fire, prompting them to engage the enemy using skills they brought to the training center.
The “blast,” though quite authentic looking and sounding, simply signaled the beginning of another training exercise for a rotation of Soldiers who are experiencing what’s affectionately referred to as “the box” at the National Training Center here.
It’s all part of the well-planned, extremely challenging choreography used to test and train some 50,000 Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines who rotate through Fort Irwin each year.
“It’s not fun, but the training definitely helps me with proficiency,” said Pfc. Kim Landicho, 24, from the Bronx, N.Y. “I’ve never been deployed so the environment here really helps prepare you for one in the future – so you’re not shocked. Every mission or training scenario taught me something new I can use.”
At the NTC, pyrotechnic guru Frank Pope and his crew of six go to great lengths to provide as realistic a combat environment possible for the Soldiers. He will tell you their efforts are essential if such scenarios are to challenge troops like real-world combat would.
Pope, at 68, retired after 46 years of Hollywood special effects, but still enjoyed his work so he was all too eager to put his talents to work at the NTC when asked. He brought with him high-end pyrotechnic insight he gathered from working on sets from “Air Wolf,” where he says he blew something up every day, to “Natural Born Killers,” “Water World,” “Starship Troopers,” and “Windtalkers” to name a few.
“I truly believe if my pyro crew and I can contribute to the saving of one Soldier’s life in combat, then we are blessed,” Pope said.
The goal for Pope’s team is to complement a detailed scenario built by trainers here by including Hollywood-style improvised explosive devices, RPG’s, truck bombs, suicide vests, and even large dust bombs that simulate chemical attacks.
Senior leadership at the NTC say replicating the combat environment is crucial. The Hollywood special effects are a perfect companion to the austere environment of the NTC, where 1,200 square miles of training area can range from 20 degrees during the winter and 120-plus during the summer months.
Regardless of temperature, it is the NTC’s ability to utilize pyrotechnics and detailed scenarios amid the rock, dirt, and mountainous terrain that ensures realism in training.