Amid Hollywood-style special effects, soldiers from around the world on Saturday practiced escorting relief convoys while watching for snipers and terrorists with truck and bicycle bombs.
The 4,000 soldiers in the first NATO-Partnership for Peace exercise on U.S. soil also assisted voter registration and an American Red Cross prisoner exchange, and dealt with hungry, angry refugees.
But only the soldiers are real. Complete with fake blood and explosives, the scenario takes place on a fictional island with some 280 actors from this army base, and civilians hired from local communities.
“We weren’t expecting them to be so real,” Hungarian army Lt. Gabor Boldizsar said of the actors.
The exercise, called Cooperative Nugget ‘95, began Aug. 6 and ends Aug. 26.
Soldiers, including nearly 700 from 14 Eastern European armies, are also hearing first-hand accounts from veterans of peacekeeping efforts in Bosnia, Haiti and Somalia.
“Peacekeeping can be extremely hard,” said Army Capt. Patrick McGowan, a veteran of Somalia duty and a trainer in this exercise. “There’s confusion and chaos. You’re not just dealing with what we call ‘the bad guys.”’
Mobs of angry civilians and bandits trying to steal food and supplies are challenges not often faced by combat missions, he said.
The emphasis in peacekeeping is on restraint and persuasion, and rules of engagement can be maddeningly strict, veterans say.
“There are certain situations where you’re frustrated,” said Capt. Clive Hopkins of Britain, who served in Croatia. “You’re getting shot at and shells are falling around the people you’re protecting and there’s not much you can do.”
The weather can add to that frustration. Temperatures at Fort Polk have been near 100 outside and higher inside tents and trucks.
“I’ve been in India and I thought India was hot,” Hopkins said. “But Louisiana is hotter. It clings to you.”
Training also covers dealing with the media - checking identification, giving cautious interviews and steering journalists from unsafe areas.
“In real life, there are always media in the area,” said Air Force Maj. Steve Headley.