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Civilians undergo Iraq survival training

David Zucchino

SUMMIT POINT, W.Va. – Until last month, Cheryl D. Lewis had never fired a gun. A civilian worker with the Department of Defense, she didn’t even know how to hold one. Even so, Lewis found herself squeezing off bursts from a Colt submachine gun at a firing range in the rolling West Virginia countryside. She also blasted targets with an AK-47 assault rifle, a Remington pump shotgun and a Sig Sauer 9 mm pistol. Lewis, a communications specialist, has volunteered for Iraq, the world’s most dangerous foreign assignment for federal workers, contractors and diplomats. Like every employee assigned to the massive U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, she was required to take an eight-day course on the uniquely treacherous and unpredictable conditions in Iraq. “Hey, all I want to do is shoot to kill,” Lewis said to her classmates, only half-kidding, after pumping off four shotgun rounds at a metal target. “I mean, it’s either them or me.” Baghdad is the only overseas assignment that requires civilians to undergo special training with the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security. The Diplomatic Security Anti-Terrorism Course – DSAC-Iraq to Baghdad veterans – is part Outward Bound and part James Bond. Embassy workers are taught to detect spies, evade surveillance and staunch a sucking chest wound with plastic to stop air from flowing through it. They’re exposed to small homemade bombs on a firing range, flinching and covering their ears behind a protective barrier. Then they study how roadside bombs are constructed in Iraq. The civilians are taught how to behave if taken hostage (don’t panic) and are told what to do if confronted by kidnappers (move). They learn what to do if their convoy is ambushed (get out of the “kill zone” – the area targeted by attackers), what to use to control bleeding (duct tape, necktie, sock) and what to do before leaving for Iraq (make a will). “Why do you think you’re getting this class?” Rolf Engels, a private security contractor who teaches surveillance detection, asked Lewis and 27 other students at a classroom in Dunn Loring, Va. Without waiting for a response, Engels shouted: “Because this class will save your life!” There was a faint sense of unease in the classroom as the 19 men and nine women discussed the possibility that they or someone they knew might soon be bombed, rocketed, kidnapped or shot. They are government and contract office workers and technical experts, not people familiar with guns or heavy ordnance. With their expertise required in Iraq, they have volunteered to serve there – out of a sense of duty and patriotism, several said. For eight long days, the classmates were inundated with warnings about the hundreds of things that could go wrong in a place like Iraq, where the war had no front and almost everyone – man or woman, civilian or military – was a target. Some participants brought in daily reminders: newspapers featuring front-page photos of the latest suicide attacks and roadside bombings. “This course will try to expand your comfort zone,” an instructor in the “Coping With Stress” session told the employees. For some of them, he predicted, living in Baghdad would cause insomnia, irritability, impatience, depression and what the instructor called “emotional shutdown.” A few embassy employees are unable to cope and are sent home, said the instructor, whose name cannot be published under State Department policy. After listening to discussions of “risk thresholds” and “acute stress reaction,” some students exchanged dubious glances. Most declined to be interviewed or photographed, citing security concerns. “Some of it is tough to take, but we need to know all of this before we get to Iraq,” said Dana Rawls, a reconstruction specialist. She volunteered for a second tour, she said, to help rebuild Iraq. An entire day is devoted to the firing range at a remote West Virginia racetrack, about 90 minutes from the classroom. On the range, office workers learned to slam 30-round magazines into AK-47s and fire a submachine gun at 900 rounds a minute. On an adjacent raceway, security agents in beat-up cars practiced evasive driving by slamming on the brakes and screeching to smoking halts. At an explosives range above the racetrack, the class – and the explosives instructors – crouched behind a protective shield as a bomb was detonated inside a junked car. The weapons training is designed to familiarize the civilians with the guns most commonly used in Iraq in case they have to pick up a weapon and defend against attackers. Rawls, 31, did not particularly enjoy the weapons course. She had never fired a gun and pinched her fingers loading it. “My hands just aren’t right for holding a gun,” she said after firing an AK-47. She was so anxious, she fired it with her purse slung over her shoulder. But, Rawls said, “I wouldn’t want to go over without this training. If I ever had to use a weapon, I feel like I’d know what to do.” The students spent one day cruising Washington, D.C., suburbs in a van. Engels, the surveillance expert, drove them for hours, tailed by five confederates in ordinary cars posing as insurgents. Struggling to see out windows fogged by an all-day rain, the students adopted informal police-lingo chatter: “I got a brown Dodge pickup … just made the same turn we did … white male driving, beard, tan jacket,” one announced. Another spotted a suspicious man. “Hey, there’s a guy watching us from the parking garage. Middle-aged, white. Carrying something, maybe an umbrella,” she said. A few lost their concentration after several numbing hours riding past fast-food restaurants and housing developments. Most managed to pick out some, but not all, of the “insurgents” by noticing the same cars following them at every turn. They also correctly detected two men who had watched them each time they left the “embassy” (a shopping mall) and arrived at their “housing complex” (an office park). A few students exchanged high-fives when the “insurgents” they had spotted approached the van to discuss the exercise. Only a couple of students picked out a woman driving a blue Jaguar – an exercise designed to show that anyone could be a spy. Most training is in the classroom. Instructors describe abductions and the shrapnel scattered by rockets crashing inside the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, where the embassy complex and several Iraqi ministries are located. Instructors are peppered with questions: Why should tourniquets be reserved for the most severe wounds? (Because putting a tourniquet on a limb will almost always lead to amputation). Why should they know whether their vehicle jack is strong enough to lift an armored vehicle? (Because two contractors have been killed in Iraq while struggling to change flat tires). Lewis, the Pentagon worker, has already been in Baghdad for one tour, but the course was not required then. “I consider myself a true American,” she said after firing the Sig Sauer. “My job is to support the war fighter – and the best place to do it is in Iraq.” The course’s 1,600 graduates have included diplomats, private contractors working as communications or technical experts, and employees of the Pentagon, State Department, Justice Department and Agency for International Development. Even ambassadors have to take the course, which offers instruction on Iraqi culture, politics and basic Arabic. A central theme of the course is “situational awareness” – the need to constantly observe, interpret and react to what the State Department calls Iraq’s “non-permissive environment” (bureaucratese for extremely dangerous). A State Department counterintelligence officer instructed the students: “If something doesn’t look right, feel right or smell right, report it.” Because insurgents are looking for information about where and when Americans are gathering or traveling, he said, embassy workers should think about everything they do – from posting routine office schedules to what they toss in the office trash. An expert on hostage survival described harrowing details of some of the 200 Americans and other foreigners kidnapped in Iraq, 40 of whom had been killed. He said many were captured because they had failed to pay close attention to their surroundings. Two contractors left their fortified house in Baghdad to check a generator last September, for example, unaware that kidnappers had been watching their daily routine. The instructor informed his students that the “window of survivability” for hostages in Iraq was 96 hours. He cited an exception: contractor Thomas Hamill, who escaped from kidnappers after being held for 24 days last year. “He made some mistakes, but the key was he kept his cool,” the instructor said. Hamill had escaped his captors once, the instructor said, but could not find help and returned to the shack where he had been held. “Once you’re out of the box, stay out of the box,” the instructor told the class. “Anybody not understand that?” Embassy workers spend most of their time in the Green Zone. Those who must leave the compound travel in convoys of armored vehicles protected by armed security officers. For trips on the dangerous airport highway, a heavily armored bus nicknamed “the Rhino” is often used. If attacked, the first instinct should be to move, to drive out of the kill zone, taking over for a wounded driver if necessary, Engels said. “It forces the attackers to adjust and react,” he said. The former senior State Department agent in charge of embassy security advised workers to monitor one another for signs of stress. “Iraq isn’t for everyone,” the officer said. “Remember – it’s a volunteer post. You don’t have to be there.” In his 12 months in Iraq, he said, he had difficulty sleeping and at one point feared he had suffered a heart attack. A fact sheet handed out offered tongue-in-cheek advice on how to prepare: “Sleep on a cot in the garage. Six hours after you go to sleep, have someone shine a flashlight in your eyes and mumble, `Sorry, wrong cot.’ ” Jill Hutchings, special assistant to the ambassador in Baghdad, said the course helped build her confidence. After the session on stress, she said, “it was comforting to know that we all have the skills to survive.”


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