By Pfc. Jennifer Spradlin

Special to the Hood Herald

FORT IRWIN, Calif. - While embedded with soldiers from the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, a Human Terrain Team, led by Col. Edward Vaughn, is completing its final preparation for an upcoming deployment to Iraq.

The human terrain team is a group of military and civilian assets specifically trained to interact with local populations to understand the best way to help Iraq transition into a stable and secure country. The human terrain team also is a cultural awareness asset to U.S. commanders to help identify the repercussions of future military actions and evaluate the effects of previous actions.

The U.S. Army National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., is an important training milestone for units and personnel slated for deployment. Located in the Mojave Desert, the training center mimics the environmental conditions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Each unit takes part in a deployment readiness exercise tailored to suit their future mission, and soldiers benefit from the realism of fully constructed villages populated with Arabic-speaking role-players.

Training at Fort Irwin is an opportunity for the human terrain team to practice their mission, make mistakes and learn in a safe environment under the guidance of specifically chosen and trained soldier observer controllers.

"Typical of the Army, (the training center) has been more than I expected in a good way," said James Forsythe, a social scientist with the human terrain team. "I've been through many, many trainings both in the military and civilian sector and this has been by far the most real-world simulation."

Forsythe has a doctorate in medical anthropology and previous experience with the African tribes of Botswana, where he worked to expand their medical capabilities and clinics. For Forsythe, the training center had the added element of working with soldiers and understanding how military operations are conducted.

On a patrol with the Ironhawk Troop, 3rd Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment soldiers, in the scenario village of Abar Layla, Forsythe learned the importance of communication and accountability. His focus was on interviewing the local population, but it also needed to be on safety.

An officer pulled Forsythe aside and explained that the soldiers were responsible for his safety in the event of a combat incident and that should Forsythe wander away he could also put the lives of the soldiers working with him at risk.

"I believe the commitment of the instructors, the observer controllers, even the role players, is to make us better and bring out our strengths," Forsythe said. "They point out things that can be done better, and I like that because part of my profession is continuous quality control."

Other members of the human terrain team accompanied Forsythe on the mission: Col. Edward Vaughn, the team's leader, and Kesra Karim, the human terrain analyst. Vaughn has more than 32 years of combined experience in the National Guard, Army Reserve and active-duty Army. He volunteered to leave his mission as a commander in the Individual Ready Reserve program to join the human terrain team. This deployment to Iraq will be his final mission before retirement.

Of training, he said, "I was reminded of just how much I love the soldiers behind putting together such a massive exercise as this."

Like Forsythe, Vaughn practiced interviewing the Iraqi role-players and met with the local chief of police. It was his first opportunity to use more than 17 weeks of human terrain team training in a tactical environment.

"I had stage fright, you might say, in trying to speak the Arabic that I have learned, but it went well. It was a great experience, and it will only get better with time," Vaughn said. "I'm looking forward to going to Iraq and doing the real thing."

For Karim, seeing the success of the human terrain team has a more personal meaning. Karim has been involved with Army for more than five years, first as a linguist and then as a special adviser on Iraq. He had firsthand experience with the impact of the human terrain teams in Iraq before becoming involved in the program.

"The human terrain team is a very positive step," said Karim. "They speak the language of the people, but at the same time they speak the language of the military."

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