We arrived at Fort Irwin, California, Thursday afternoon (Feb. 17, 2011) and Gus, PAO, (Public Affairs Officer) gave us our press passes and a lift to Forward Operating Base (FOB) Denver, “In the Box” at the NTC, (National Training Center).

Here’s the mission statement for the NTC featured on a brochure: “The NTC provides tough, realistic joint and combined arms training in interagency, intergovernmental and multinational venues across the full sprectrum of conflict in order to prepare brigade combat teams for combats.”

The brochure offers more explanation of the training: “This is as real as it gets short of war. 12 villages and 2000 role players, 250 of which are actual Iraqi nationals, all threaded together with detailed scenario scripts. Our mountains also conceal seven tunnel complexes. (Afghanistan Terrain Replication.)

When we reached FOB Denver, Maj. Joel Anderson, the new PAO for the 1-25th SBCT (Stryker Brigade Combat Team), was unavailable, tied up in meetings with Brigade Commander Col. Todd Wood and other leaders on the eve of the commencement of “full spectrum exercises.” Full spectrum exercises are the “scenario,” where the soldiers drop into a week of role-playing, acting as if they are in Afghanistan, conducting KLEs (Key Leader Engagements) and other counterinsurgency activities. All the participants wear MILES, a vest with a system of sensors that react to an infrared beam. If a soldier is “tagged,” he or she is a casualty in the role playing.

Over the course of our four nights and three days “in the box,” soldiers frequently mistook us for “role players.” They would ask if we were “in the scenario” or “in play” and we would assure them we were actual, real, legitimate journalists covering the training. We were not pretending to be journalists.

On Friday, we waited hours to be assigned to a unit for our embed. Eventually, we were given a tour of the TOC (Tactical Operations Center), a high security, high-tech command center where no cameras, cell phones—or journalists, usually, are permitted.

During our embed, our vocabulary of acronyms and understanding of the Army’s unique language improved.

We had meals in the DFAC (Dining Facility.) As a kid growing up in the military, we called it the mess tent or chow hall. We moved to a COB (Combat Operating Base) near a mock Afghan village, Erbat-Shar. We spent 24 hours with the soldiers of Third Platoon, Bravo Company, 1-5 Infantry Battalion on their QRF (Quick Reaction Force) rotation.

On two separate occasions, the QRF was called to respond to an incident involving an IED (Improvised Explosive Device.) On the first mission, we escorted an EOD (Explosive Ordnance Detail) to the site of the IED. When our Stryker gunner spotted an unknown vehicle, we pursued. He told us to prepare for a bumpy ride. The soldier across from me said: “Did anyone teach you what to do if a Stryker rolls?”

No. He said we need to shove our forearm forcefully behind the knees of the nearest soldier standing at the back of the vehicle. Two soldiers protrude from separate hatches and serve as eyes and guns for the vehicle. They risk being crushed if the vehicle rolls.

Throw your arm behind his knees so the knees buckle. Then grab him and drag him inside the vehicle. Once the two soldiers are in the Stryker, put your arms up and brace yourself.

The Stryker roll drill. Good to know. The “bad guy” got away and we reduced speed and returned to FOB King, home of the 1-5 Infantry “Bobcats.”

During the down time between missions, the troops shared Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) and stories. We learned the vegetarian omelette is universally loathed. I tried it. It has the consistency of Silly Putty and smells..well, the smell is indescribable..and not in a good way.

When we left “the box,” we had an MP (Military Police) escort.

This blog post is intended only as an introduction to the Army’s acronyms and the story of our embed experience. I’ll continue to add posts and photos. It’s been a month since we returned and this post will serve as priming the pump for future storytelling.