Training for Afghanistan in the Mojave Desert

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Rick McGinnis is a writer and photographer from Toronto, Canada. In this feature he tells how he accompanied Canadian troops to Fort Irwin, the US Army base in California, on a training exercise.

It gets cold in the desert at night. Really cold. You’d be amazed. It also rains like mad – not often, but when it does it comes down in sheets and runs through the sand in roaring streams.

It’s also really beautiful – just sky and earth, meeting in a ragged line. I’d love to go back.

Like a set from the movie ‘Star Wars’? Photo © Rick McGinnis.

Fort Irwin in California

I went to the Mojave Desert at a low point in my life and my career. I’d just been laid off from the first and only newsroom job I’d ever held in my life. My business – journalism and photography – had changed wildly while I’d been drawing a regular paycheque, and I needed to figure out what to do next. It was at this point than a friend called and said he had an empty seat on a government jet going to Fort Irwin, California. Was I interested?

With two small children at home, I’m sure my wife would have preferred me to stay home, but she knows I love to travel and that opportunities like this don’t come around too often, so off I went, in a plane full of TV and newsprint journalists, to spend time with one of the last groups of Canadian soldiers being deployed to Afghanistan as they trained at a US Army base in the Mojave Desert.

Portrait of a ‘villager’. Photo © Rick McGinnis.

The National Training Center

Fort Irwin was established during World War Two as an artillery training base. It was closed in the early ‘70s and reopened again, becoming the home of the National Training Center, where troops trained for potential combat scenarios. It’s the home of twelve mock villages, and the Canadians were being deployed for manoeuvres in two of them, where they’d encounter Farsi-speaking “villagers” and hostile “insurgents”.

We slept the first night in a big tent full of soldiers playing rap, metal and country and ripping on each other the way young men do when they’re together. On the second night we moved to a smaller (but still massive) ten on the Forward Operating Base (FOB), closer to the mock villages. We slept in army issue sleeping backs on cots and ate mess food – “Shit on a Shingle” and “Roadkill” – and MREs (Meals Ready to Eat – field rations.) It was all surprisingly tasty. I came back with a vicious cold and a few pounds heavier.

I wasn’t at Fort Irwin long enough to get used to people walking around everywhere with guns, but I can see how you could. I learned that helmets and flak vests are heavy, and I’m amazed that you can run around all day wearing them, but then I suppose knowing that people are trying to kill you provides motivation.

An armoured car in the Mojave Desert. Photo © Rick McGinnis.

Exercises in the Mojave Desert

The centrepiece of the week was when our group of press were escorted to the roof of a building in one of the “villages” to watch an exercise. We met the US and Canadian officers in charge of the exercise, and one of the “locals” – Ali Nejad, a Persian who’d had an electronics business in Los Angeles. His wife was an Afghani who encouraged him to get a job helping train soldiers at Fort Irwin. He showed us the shipping containers where he lived with fellow “villagers” while on the base.

A group of “insurgents” – US army soldiers costumed in scarves and robes with appropriate weapons – quietly joined us on the roof and huddled behind the walls. The Canadians arrived with their armoured vehicles and entered the village. A smoke bomb went off, soldiers were told to drop to the ground and the insurgents next to us opened fire. I don’t know if you’ve ever been next to automatic weapons, but they’re loud. Very loud.

They don’t really use the phrase “war games” much anymore, but it did feel like a game, although not a particularly fun one. Similarly, the villages and military facilities around us looked like the sets from some kind of sci-fi movie – but not one where you’d want a role. It would be one of those movies that didn’t end particularly well.

Training in the Mojave Desert in California. Photo © Rick McGinnis.

Training for the real thing

I had a lot of respect for the soldiers I met – both the ones training and the ones doing the training. They knew they had a job to do, but there was an unspoken agreement that this was all fine, and when the villages and bombs and bullets were real, things would be very different.

For me, it was all a bit of a lark. I wasn’t going to Afghanistan, and I didn’t end up selling the stories and pictures from Fort Irwin to anyone. (There were a few bites, but nobody seemed terribly interested in Afghanistan or the war there nearly a decade after it had started.) In the end, my week in the Mojave Desert with the troops turned into a travel story, about a week away from my life in a place where I’d probably never have gone if I didn’t need something to do.

Further information

See more of Rick McGinnis’s work on his website www.rickmcginnis.com. He is based in Toronto, Ontario and available for commissions in Canada and beyond.

Read more about Rick’s travel adventures on his website, Away with a Camera.

Discover more about the US Army on its official website.

The Canadian Armed Forces are recruiting.

Use Pinterest? Pin this for later and read about the story of Canadian troops training at Fort Irwin in California. Photo © Rick McGinnis on www.MannedUp.com.

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