DIAMOND FORK CANYON — The blast catches everyone by surprise, even those who were expecting it. Louder and stronger than anyone was prepared for, it throws a plume of smoke and dust high into the air and leaves ears ringing in its wake.
For a split second, everyone hesitates and the only sound is the echo of the blast bouncing off the surrounding hillsides. Then, the attack begins.
The soldiers dive out of their Humvees and seek cover behind the tires, looking to the nearby hillside to identify their attackers. One soldier takes a shot to the head but continues to fight until an officer passes by.
"You're dead, soldier," the officer says.
The young man obediently sets his gun on the ground in front of him and lies face down, the blue splash from the paintball that "killed" him spread across the top of his head.
"Sir, yes sir," he says.
Like many of his fellow soldiers, he will not "survive" this training exercise, designed to teach members of the 405th Civil Affairs Battalion of the U.S. Army Reserve, based in Pleasant Grove, how to deal with a roadside ambush using an improvised explosive device, or IED, which are blamed for nearly half of all U.S. troop deaths in Iraq.
The exercise, conducted Saturday, was a unique operation, arranged by the National Foundation for Officer Survival Training, based in Utah, with the help of the Utah County Bomb Squad, Spanish Fork Emergency Medical Service, University of Utah Air Med and a bundle of private donations. The end result was a realistic training environment one officer called "priceless."
"Today, (the soldiers) are learning a lot," said Capt. Timothy Zeisset. "This is an excellent learning exercise for them. This is private land, and the people are donating their time to come train us. It's awesome."
Zeisset, who was stationed in Iraq from January to October of 2004, said he was thankful to never be fired upon. But he said even though his unit is not intended to be directly involved in combat, the training is a must.
"Even though we're civil affairs, (insurgents) are shooting at everyone," he said. "They're not just shooting at the infantry guys."
One of the volunteers for this exercise knows all too well what happens in an ambush. Mark Mattson, a retired Navy Seal from Minnesota, now works as a security contractor and has spent a significant amount of time in Iraq. In 2004, his convoy was ambushed, and though he and most of the men on the convoy survived, he witnessed the death of a friend in the attack.
"You hate to see your buddy die," Mattson said. "You hate to see anybody die. But you don't think about that. You're maybe a little p----- off (at the attackers), but you keep that under tabs and you work through the problem."
Mattson called Saturday's training "invaluable," for its use of multiple strategies to simulate a real-life gunbattle. Insurgents are constantly updating their strategies, he said, and the key to defeating them is constant training and preparation.
Soldiers ran through a number of scenarios, from recovering disabled vehicles to using a helicopter to evacuate wounded soldiers. The first runs were chaotic, but by the time the day drew to a close, soldiers were becoming quick in their reactions and crisp in their strategies.
And for the "attackers," experienced paintball enthusiasts from the family that donated the land in Diamond Fork Canyon for the exercise, along with their friends, it's a chance to pursue their passion and help a good cause in the process.
"It really captures the essence of being in a gunbattle, because the stimuli are just out of control, and your adrenaline is screaming," Mattson said. "And these soldiers today, you can see it in them. Initially they were just out of control, but that's how they would have been in that first contact had they not had this training today."
Dave Acosta, founder and director of training for NFOST, credited the success of the exercise to all the donations and volunteers. NFOST is a nonprofit organization that trains police officers and soldiers to deal with life-threatening situations and the post-traumatic stress that may ensue. Acosta met Mattson while providing such training for soldiers in Iraq.
"At least once or twice a month, we'll get a call from someone saying how the class saved their life," Acosta said. "You see the value of it today. If (the soldiers) weren't here today, the first time they would see what they're seeing would be in real life in Iraq, and I don't know how they would have done."
Sgt. Nate Sorenson, of Provo, agreed that it was better to become familiar with the situation under these circumstances.
"It's good training," he said. "You feel the intensity while you're out there. You just hope that during training is the time you can come out and get a focus, and not when you're in Iraq."