MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. -- It was a routine training convoy, but with a twist. Truck Company Alpha's training chief planted a simulated improvised explosive device along the route, concealing the metal canister with rocks and brush.
When detonated, the simulated IED would trigger a realistic but harmless explosion, enough to get the Marines' attention.
The training tested the Marines' speed, judgment and response to IEDs, the most common threat to motor vehicle operators in Afghanistan.
Sergeant Justin Wahlster, the Truck Co. A training chief serving with Headquarters Battalion, 1st Marine Division, assembled and emplaced the mock IED to expose his Marines to the enemy tactics they might encounter when deployed in a combat zone, he said.
Spotting IEDs is difficult on new routes as Marines are unfamiliar with terrain and cannot spot easily spot changes in the area.
"It's crucial that everyone on the route is paying attention," said Wahlster, a native of Aumsville, Ore. "They need to learn that route so they can see what's different about it the next time they go down it."
During the first convoy, one truck passed by the device without noticing it. When the second vehicle approached, Wahlster triggered the IED. The explosion sent special effects powder into the air and burst a plastic beverage bottle. The loud bang and cloud of smoke clearly showed the Marines they had been hit.
Immediately, the Marines began talking on their radios to figure out what happened and how to retrieve the Marines and the vehicle. They resorted to their immediate action drills, which are the predetermined and practiced reactions to a given scenario.
During the lane training, Marines were expected to quickly identify casualties and the state of communications equipment, which are vital in ensuring a quick response in case of any injuries.
"If you're going to (evacuate) Marines, every minute can save a life," said 2nd Lt. Steven J. Krajewski, a platoon commander serving with Truck Co. A. "These simulations build muscle memory and increase confidence."
In addition to muscle memory, Marines must have the implicit knowledge of their vehicle commander's decision-making process so they can move swiftly and efficiently after an IED strike.
"The vehicle commander may not have time to react, so you have to be able to make quick decisions," said Krajewski, a native of Philadelphia.
The training allowed the Marines to experience some of the chaos of an IED attack, and speed suffered during the second convoy. As a new team, the Marines were untested on the IED lanes. Evacuation took more than an hour, and the litter team was struck by a secondary IED while transporting a mock casualty. More than eight Marines were designated as mock casualties in the simulated strike.
During training, Marines are expected to make mistakes, said Wahlster. The mistakes made in training help drivers and leaders refine their skills and improve before deploying to a combat zone.
"Right now is the time to make mistakes and learn," said Wahlster. "They made a huge mistake, that's what the enemy is looking for. That's why we go through this training. It's a must, because this enemy is one of the most intelligent we've fought."
Though IEDs are difficult to detect, good training can help Marines predict possible locations and avert casualties. Insurgents are also prone to leave indicators when planting IEDs, and skilled Marines are able to pick up on small deviations in terrain to identify insurgent activity.
"You need to have that combat hunter mindset," said Wahlster. "It's starting to think like that enemy. You can try to bury IEDs as good as you can, but there's always something letting you know there was a human factor in planting that IED."
The IED lane training is just the beginning for Marines learning to safeguard their convoys. With more practice, they will be better prepared to perform their mission of providing 1st Marine Division with secure transportation in any clime and place.