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Officer says training at Camp Shelby is up to par

A Wisconsin soldier whose death in Iraq raised questions about the adequacy of his preparation was provided with all the tools he needed, the commander of his training unit told reporters Tuesday during a media tour of the base.

Col. John Hadjis said all of the more than 20,000 soldiers who have trained at this south Mississippi base have undergone a rigorous regimen that includes “theater immersion,” which simulates a foreign battlefield and extensive training on how to detect and react to deadly improvised explosive devices.

Spc. Stephen W. Castner was killed July 24 by a roadside bomb just days into his unit’s deployment in Iraq. In the first days of his training at Camp Shelby, a sprawling 135,000-acre base, Castner apparently sent an anonymous letter to a government official with complaints of the training he was receiving.

The complaints, which prompted a congressional inquiry, were that trainers argued about techniques in front of the troops, and that there were too few vehicles to practice maneuvers.

After his death, Castner’s father — Stephen L. Castner of Cederburg, Wis. — contacted U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., who demanded that the Pentagon investigate. The senior Castner had originally sent a letter to the congressman last May about his son’s concerns.

Hadjis, commander of the 87th Division, said he first learned of the complaints 19 days into Castner’s training. Hadjis said he later learned that Castner sent the anonymous letter, likely to the Department of Defense, in his first days on base — before the intensive training began.

“(Castner) had some questions about the training, and I would argue to you that he was already training at that point and some of his questions were going to get answered like 20 minutes later because he was with us for 70 days,” Hadjis said. “He participated in every collective event that we train here…. His records show that.”

Specifically, Hadjis said Castner was trained on nearly half a dozen weapons, in combat lifesaving and on escorting convoys, which was the soldier’s job in Iraq.

“My heart goes out to his family and the unit,” Hadjis said. “Spc. Castner was tremendously well trained.”

The convoy training was so theater-specific — tailored after the missions they would face in Iraq — that Camp Shelby leaders measured the distance the convoys would travel in the war-torn country, and found routes of similar distance in Mississippi for the troops to use for training runs, Hadjis said.

“We replicated all of that,” Hadjis said, adding that trainers even used soldiers who spoke different languages so that the troops in Castner’s unit could get accustomed to speaking through interpreters.

The Army has taken pride in its theater immersion training. On base Tuesday, Arabic screams rang out through a mock Iraqi city as soldiers stormed a house with machine guns blazing.

The Army uses dozens of Arabic-speaking role players during training exercises to simulate what soldiers will see in the Middle East.

Jawad Alabdullah, a role player who was raised in Baghdad, said the training grounds and the regimen are as close to the real thing as possible.

“This is just like over there,” he said, looking around at the dull beige buildings. Men and women in traditional Iraqi dress peered through windows at American soldiers creeping up a gravel road.

“I try to help and teach them about my culture and how to deal with people,” Alabdullah said.

Other soldiers on the base said they were satisfied with the training they were receiving, although the media tour was a controlled event and reporters were not free to roam the facility to interview troops.

“Overall, yeah, it’s realistic,” said 32-year-old Alaska National Guardsman Terrence McKnight Sr. “The thing about any training is that it can be improved. You take what you can get and use it to your advantage.”

Navy Seaman David Casey, 38, of Pace, Fla., said he was impressed with the way the Army does business when he arrived to train for a mission in Afghanistan.

“The training is enlightening,” he said. “I feel confident that what we’re getting is what we’re going to need.”