Gina Diamante for NPR
Soldiers simulate loading a wounded man onto a Humvee in a live combat drill in Fort Irwin, Calif.
Soldiers simulate loading a wounded man onto a Humvee in a live combat drill in Fort Irwin, Calif. Gina Diamante for NPR
Gina Diamante for NPR
Leonard Bryant, a civilian role-player, is dragged to a "Stryker" by soldiers in a live combat simulation at Fort Irwin, Calif. Bryant, a former Army medic, teaches soldiers how to retrieve, triage and evacuate wounded Americans and Iraqi citizens.
Leonard Bryant, a civilian role-player, is dragged to a "Stryker" by soldiers in a live combat simulation at Fort Irwin, Calif. Bryant, a former Army medic, teaches soldiers how to retrieve, triage and evacuate wounded Americans and Iraqi citizens. Gina Diamante for NPR
There is an old, often-debated belief that war is good for the economy. For some people in California, the Iraq war has been a boon for their wallets.
The Iraq war has created some new job opportunities in the California desert for some Americans, as well as for Iraqi nationals who fled their country and found a new opportunity in re-creating their homeland. They're working as actors at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif.
For decades, troops who came to the fort for training had to face members of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment who worked as an opposing force in live combat drills.
But over the past few years, a new element has been added to the training — civilian role-players who add atmosphere and vital lessons.
Cesar Garcia, a 41-year-old California native, is one of those role-players. During training scenarios, he plays a U.S. soldier whose leg has been blown off by an improvised explosive device, or IED.
Garcia's face, his uniform and the stump of his leg are covered in blood. The blood is a special effect; the missing leg is not. Garcia's leg was seriously injured in a motorcycle accident when he was in his 20s. After years of odd jobs from welding to fixing computers, and a series of health complications, he had the leg amputated five years ago.
"Once I had my leg amputated, I didn't know what to do. Computers — yes it's easy sitting down, but I don't like sittin' down all day," he says.
Garcia worked for a while at a base in Texas, and then was recruited to join the team at Fort Irwin.
"I'm part of the cause, helping out the troops, helping out our beautiful U.S. of A," he says.
The role-players teach soldiers how to retrieve, triage and evacuate wounded Americans and Iraqi citizens from an urban battle zone.
First, soldiers secure the area. Then the medics go to work, trying to tie a tourniquet while bullets and rocket-propelled grenades fly overhead.
In war, mistakes can be deadly, but here, trainees get guidance from Leonard Bryant, a role-player who's also a former Army medic.
"It really takes a lot of soul-searching, because it looks easy but it's not. There's a lot of emotions involved," he explains.
Bryant has been out of the military for 21 years. Now, he spends about two weeks a month made-up with fake injuries and acting the part of a wounded soldier.
"My heart is in it. I love it. This is the best job I've ever had in my life," he says.
Hundreds of civilians are paid to populate the two Iraqi cities and 12 villages that are spread across Fort Irwin's 1,200 square miles of desert.
One of the three private contractors providing the role-players for this rotation is Global Tactical Training Institute, or GTTI. Halee, a former Iraqi solider who would only give his first name, is now a manager for GTTI. His duties include role-playing with U.S. soldiers and teaching in the classroom. He says he has slowly gained their trust.
"I did a lot of culture classes, and they started taking the advice we showed them. And we teach them seriously," he says. "Now they look at us like we're part of them."
Several of the actors said they're on a mission. Bryant says his work helps save lives, even when his own character doesn't survive.
"Unfortunately, on this last run, I didn't make it. But I live to die, so it's a wonderful thing," he says, laughing.
Gina Diamante reports for KVCR in San Bernardino, Calif.