120 miles Northeast of Los Angeles lies the fictional country of Atropia. That's the name of the area given to what the commanders at the Fort Irwin National Training Center call 'The Box,' a 1,000 square mile area in the Mojave Desert used to train U.S. & allied troops and their commanders in large scale combat and the realities of modern warfare.
I was honored to visit Fort Irwin and witness the lives of some of the 10,000 soldiers and dependents stationed there.
(Courtesy of Kent Matsuoka)
The Department of Defense routinely provides what they call 'Civic Leader Tours' to local communities so we might learn and take our experiences back to the rest of the civilian population.
As the closest Army installation to Los Angeles, they hope that their outreach here helps influence creative leaders in Hollywood to provide realistic depictions of military life, instead of the harmful portrayals of dangerous PTSD damaged veterans, or fanciful representations of larger than life superheroes the public can't relate to.
Two of the most important lessons learned from my visit with the brave men and women stationed at Fort Irwin were quite different from what is commonly portrayed by Hollywood or suggested by our leaders in D.C.
The first is the importance of counterintelligence and public relations in modern warfare. One of the greatest assets the U.S. Military has is in its technological advantages. Comprising of an area larger than Rhode Island, with complete control of the land, airspace, and electronic signals in the area, the commanders of the 11th Armored Cavalry that make up the Opposing Forces (OPFOR) not only have the home field advantage of knowledge of the terrain, but the ability to jam or spoof GPS, track radio transmissions, and operates a closed intranet with its own "Falsebook", "Tweeter", and even an "Atropia News Network" for the actors portraying the citizens and insurgents that the visiting units must contend with.
(Courtesy of DVIDS)
One past engagement involved the visiting unit accidentally killing some innocent civilians, and exasperated the situation when a young junior officer came off as unsympathetic when approached by role-playing journalists for the 'Atropia News Network' that went viral in the simulation. Another involved a helicopter of the visiting unit being 'shot down' by the OPFOR, and reached by insurgents before the visiting unit could rescue the crew. The insurgents then were able to strip the helicopter of its valuable electronics and armament, which were then sold on 'Falsebook' and provided the OPFOR additional resources to use against the visiting unit.
Commanders and troops must contend not only with the unforgiving desert terrain as they attempt to approach Atropia, but frequently find themselves either without technological advantages they rely on such as the jamming of their GPS guidance systems, or the targeting of their radio transmissions by OPFOR artillery units that require strategic thinking instead of brute force.
The second, and more important lesson learned was through conversations with some of the spouses and dependents of the troops also invited to participate.
(Courtesy of DVIDS)
They expressed a desire to see more depictions of the difficulty they face at home as their spouses are deployed. Less than 10% of the American population has ever served or come from a military family, and the difficulties they face from constant relocation, inability to conduct some legal transactions without their spouse, or simply the loneliness and worry faced by a deployed spouse is something often forgotten in our rush to war.
Although Hollywood has had a long and beneficial relationship with the military, depictions of the experience of those most affected by a soldier's deployment are often overlooked. Recent productions such as NatGeo's 'The Long Road Home' or the book 'Sisters of Valor' by Rosalie Turner offer an insight into the sacrifices made on the homefront are often glossed over.
As tensions in Korea heat up and the conflict in the Middle East continue with no end in sight, we've become used to the sights of soldiers in combat, but thanks to the outreach by Army OCPA-West, the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, and the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, let's hope we can continue to be a witness not only to the brave men and women serving our country, but to those left behind as well.
Like their sister services, the U.S. Army Office of the Chief of Public Affairs is the primary contact for processing film and television production requests seeking support from the Army.
If you're interested in finding out more about how you might be able to access military assets or knowledge for your project, give the Department of Defense a call and see if it is something they might be able to support.