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A behind-the-scenes look at Fort Drum soldier training

In the communities surrounding Fort Drum, soldiers in uniform are a common sight: they're in the grocery store with their families, standing in line at the post office, or having a beer with friends after work. But for many of the area's civilians, what soldiers do on post remains something of a mystery. An annual event at Fort Drum aims to fix that.

Credit Joanna Richards
A woman speaks with an Army medic after an exercise simulating field hospital treatment during a mass casualty scenario.

Captain Martin Stewart greets a group of civilians in front of a facility called the "Mystic" – the Medical Simulation Training Center, on Fort Drum. He's a physician's assistant, and he runs the training here.

Fort Drum and the Association of the United States Army – AUSA – are hosting "A Day in the Life of a Soldier," an event that brings about 100 civilians on post each year to get a realistic look at how soldiers work and train.

Stewart leads us down a hall, into the small Combat Trauma Training Lab. The civilians whisper and laugh nervously. Shockingly realistic mannequins on gurneys have grisly limb amputations, and the stumps of their legs spout red fluid, which pools onto paper towels on the floor. A table features just protruding stumps, also shooting fake blood.

Lesson number one: Army training aims for realism, in ways that can shock outsiders.

The real Army medics in the room demonstrate applying tourniquets to the severed limbs. Then they shut off the fake blood to save our clothes, and we're invited to try.

Liza Darou, an employee of the Fort Drum Regional Health Planning Organization, looks on, as a medic guides a woman through the process. "You'll want to go high and tight, so, like, up in here," he says. "The artery runs along there. Just pick it up, and crank it down."

Credit Joanna Richards/WRVO
A medic applies a tourniquet to a mannequin in the Combat Trauma Training Lab.

Darou is trained as a nurse, so I ask her how what she's seeing compares to what goes on in civilian hospital trauma units.

"I think that this tourniquet tool is a very wonderful tool," she says. "It's much more effective than even what's used in the hospitals right now. It's – yeah, it's way ahead. Way ahead. And this! These moving mannequins – that's great for training."

With her medical background, Darou has a detached eye in the midst of all this simulated human gore. It is a little uncomfortable, though – the civilians giggle as they play combat medics, but it's nervous laughter. It's easy to imagine one of the real medics in the room, in the midst of a battle far from home, desperately trying to keep one of his buddies from bleeding out before he even reaches a field hospital.

And then – quick change – it's time for lunch. What better way to create a bond between soldiers and civilians than by uniting them in the experience of the dreaded MRE, meals-ready-to-eat?

I end up sitting across the table from Sharon Addison, Watertown's city manager. It's her first time on post, and she's eager for this glimpse of the city's neighbors at Fort Drum. She chats with a soldier nearby, and gamely tears open her meal with her teeth.

"I had chicken and feta and tomatoes and I've got veggie crackers with cheese," she says. "I've got some M & M's here. I also had some cornbread stuffing, but I didn't know how to cook that in addition to the chicken and feta, so I didn't do that, that'll go home with me. It was good, it was pretty tasty."

From survival on the battlefield to field rations, this day is about reestablishing a connection between civilians and service members that many say has been lost since the inception of the all-volunteer military.

"When that occurred, less and less of the American citizenry had an opportunity to interface with soldiers," says Mike Plummer, the organizer of the Day in the Life of a Soldier program, and a retired 10th Mountain Division commander. He says these days, less than 1 percent of Americans will ever serve in the armed forces, "so there's a distance between what soldiers do on a day-to-day basis and the knowledge of the community of what they do."

Plummer says it's important to narrow that gap, to better inform civilian decision-making on military issues, especially in a base community like Watertown.

Next stop: weapons training. A lot of that takes place out in the field, but it starts in this simulation facility, with what are basically high-tech video games.

"Everybody locked and loaded? Ready to rock and roll?" Sergeant Jared Malcolm's scratchy voice is a dead giveaway that he's a drill instructor. He has us pick up modified M-4s and other weapons, and prepare for an on-screen battle.

"Here they come!" he shouts, as gunshots ring out. "Shoot 'em! Come on, let's go! They're coming to kill you!"

Malcolm singles me out for a moment: "Why aren't you shooting them, reporter lady?" he screams over the gunfire. Then: "There we go, that's what I'm talking about," when I put down my recorder and pick up the weapon.

After the round is over, I ask Malcolm how much of his day he spends screaming.

"I spend a lot of hours a day screaming," he says, laughing. "I have been screaming all day, to every group that's come through, in order to put a little extra feel of the combat stress that I try to add upon my soldiers when I put them through this kind of training...because there's no way of simulating bullets coming at you, so the only thing you can do is yell at them, put a little stress on them, make them feel like actual combat situations."

I have a sudden vision of Sergeant Malcolm's home life, with his poor kids lining up like Army privates, trembling in the shadow and booming voice of their terrifying dad.

Turns out Malcolm's single, no kids – but, he divulges, "I am going to be an elementary school teacher in a couple of months, so this is going to be kind of an interesting transformation for me." A burst of laughter erupts from him and the other soldiers nearby.

At the end of the day, a half-dozen soldiers and civilians hang out in the simulation center. Everyone's happy and chatty. The civilians seem more at ease with the soldiers, and the soldiers seem glad that the civilians have taken an interest in what they do. One soldier jokes, “You all enjoy those MREs? You know, I heard some of you didn't love that Mexican rice...” 

“We heard the chicken pesto sucks, a woman responds, to much laughter. 

“It smells like vomit,” the soldier says. “Add cheese. That's the key, add cheese.”

I find Liza Darou, the nurse I talked to at the tourniquet exercise. 

“Now, you know, I feel like...more a part of what Fort Drum is,” she says. “you know, we're always trying to include them in the community, but it's nice of them to invite all of us here to see what they do.”

Darou says the experience will help her be a better neighbor to the 20,000 soldiers who call the north country home.