With a helicopter whirling overhead and paint-ball guns aimed at targets on the horizon, a contingent of Nevada Army National Guard military police soldiers rehearsed Wednesday for a yearlong tour in Afghanistan where they will replace the first wave of about 30 MPs who deployed last year.
Their stage was a makeshift village on the outskirts of the North Las Vegas Readiness Center where the terrain and dry, arid conditions are similar to what they might experience when they reach their outpost in Afghanistan in early summer.
Wednesday’s performance involved a “principal,” or very important person, who they escorted first to an airport to catch a Lakota helicopter for a flight to the village. There a platoon had cordoned off an area for his rendezvous with a would-be regional leader.
“This training is extremely important because there’ll be some VIPs in theater visiting for various reasons and it’s important that we safeguard them,” said 1st Lt. Lorenzo Aranda, who will lead this wave of citizen-soldiers from Nevada’s 72nd Military Police Company on their mission in eastern Afghanistan.
“As we know operations are continuing over there and threat still does exist to some extent,” said Aranda, 34, who will command his first overseas deployment.
After more than a year preparing for the mission, Aranda was pleased with how the MPs handled Wednesday’s exercise. He said he is confident they can complete another training stint at Fort Bliss, Texas, in May before arriving in Afghanistan to relieve their fellow MPs who have been in country since late last year.
“They’ve gone from sort of a crawl to a walk to a run,” he said. “At this point I’m supremely confident in their abilities once we get over there.”
For Wednesday’s scenario, one unit cordoned off the mock village while another transported a supposed State Department official to an airport. The official then boarded a helicopter that landed at the village to “conduct a key leader engagement with a provincial official. Following that they will put him back on the bird, fly him back to the airport and transport him back to the embassy,” said 1st Lt. Sebastian Balint, commander of the 72nd Military Police Company.
“What this simulates is exactly what happens day to day in Afghanistan as we restructure and rebuild the Afghan forces,” said Balint, 29, who in civilian life works for the MGM Resorts corporate sustainability department.
The soldiers were thrown some curve balls to test their reactions when curious villagers, for example, approached the convoy as the VIP party arrived. A simulated roadside bomb had been planted but the device failed to detonate for the morning session
“We up their stress level. We get them tired. We send them last-minute changes and we really put a tight timeline on them to force them to feel under pressure,” he said. “We simulate a small attack to force them to think on their feet and react to the situations that we feel they’re going to see every day.”
The first wave of more than 25 soldiers from the 72nd left for Kabul, Afghanistan, in September, stopping first at a New Jersey military base for training before tackling the crucial mission to provide security and transportation for NATO leaders, dignitaries and high-ranking International Security Assistance Force officials.
The 72nd MPs are a well-traveled, well-trained Nevada Army Guard unit that has deployed four times since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S. First they guarded the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., then they were sent to Iraq twice. In addition they were sent on a 2005 assignment to maintain law and order in flood-ravaged New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Sgt. Jazzmene Loftis, 27, of Henderson, said she has two priorities on this, her first overseas mission.
“As I approach deployment my first focus is training so that I am ready, as well as my guys, to go over there. And secondly, my family. I just want to make sure they’re OK here at home,” she said.