Five large projection screens displayed a schedule, a map of Iraq, flowcharts and a live broadcast of MSNBC. Soldiers sat in front of computer monitors, typing constantly and receiving updates from around Iraq.
Over the public-address system, a voice announced news of a suicide bombing in Mosul, followed by an ambush by insurgents firing rocket-propelled grenades and small arms. The target: the mayor and police chief.
Thursday afternoon’s scenario at Fort Lewis was part of a two-week mission rehearsal exercise involving more than 900 local troops.
Next spring the soldiers of I Corps will go to Iraq to run day-to-day operations of the American military’s presence in the country. That responsibility has been rotated among the Army’s other three corps since the beginning of the war in 2003.
Two Stryker infantry brigades from Fort Lewis are expected to join their I Corps comrades in Iraq later in 2009.
The drill, which wraps up today, includes 1,100 soldiers at other locations, such as Fort Hood, Texas, Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and military bases in the United Kingdom.
While the U.S. Army has the most people participating, the Navy, Air Force, Marines and the British and South Korean militaries also are contributing.
It is the corps’ most important large-scale exercise before it deploys. Lt. Gen. Charles Jacoby Jr., the commanding general of both Fort Lewis and I Corps, last year described it as "the finish line."
"This is the one that’s been getting us ready," said Sgt. Jerrey Jones, an information technology specialist. "I was amped up, ready to go for this one."
At the heart of the exercise is the Battle Command Training Center, set up similar to the joint operations center they’ll use at Camp Victory outside Baghdad.
"I liken it to the nerve center of the corps," said Col. Luther Shealy, the I Corps chief of operations. "In the civilian world, if the state of Washington had an emergency operations center that, all at once, was controlling fire departments, police departments, electric company, transportation company and then a snowstorm came and they had to coordinate everything, that’s kind of what we’re doing here."
The center has been maintained around the clock, and soldiers work 12-hour shifts – similar to what awaits them next year. The data network at Fort Lewis is linked to the military system in Iraq so the local soldiers could work with real-time information. The equipment they use is the same as what they’ll use in Baghdad.
"This is as close as we can get it as far as replicating what I Corps will be doing," Shealy said.
I Corps will take over operations of Multi-National Corps-Iraq. Jacoby will report directly to Gen. Ray Odierno, the United States’ top military commander in the country. Odierno is in charge of Multi-National Force-Iraq. The corps’ primary duties will be directing ground operations, receiving battlefield reports and presenting them to the command and allocating resources to individual units so they can carry out missions, Shealy said.
"That’s one of our challenges – to stay at the appropriate level," he said. "(Multi-National Force-Iraq) is up there at the strategic level. The units on the ground fighting the battle are at the tactical level. We’re at an in-between level.
"Our mission is to understand what those divisions are doing, give them the resources to do it, synchronize their actions but not fight their battle for them."
The two-week exercise requires reacting to a constant stream of scenarios.
Capt. John Langford, a 31-year-old Graham resident, distilled various sources of information – such as aerial imagery and on the-ground intelligence – to compile reports for the corps’ command group.
"There are numerous elements we need to take into account: Shia tribes, Sunni tribes, religion as a whole, external influences, division boundaries," he said. "It can be very complex."
The scenarios use specific names of Iraqi places, insurgent groups and people to closely mirror reality, Langford said.
"It’s taking with a historical context and a logical context," he said. "The people who design the scenarios take everything into mind and write what we call realistic fiction.’"
I Corps must also consider the shifting political landscape. Next week’s U.S. presidential election could change the long-term strategy of the war, including the number of troops. Iraq has provincial elections scheduled for January. And a status-of-forces agreement between Washington and Baghdad about the autonomy of American troops has yet to be signed.
Brig. Gen John Johnson, the corps deputy commanding general for operations, said the command is considering the changing politics. And Brig. Gen. Peter Bayer, the corps chief of staff, said the unit is working with the assumption that some form of a troop-authorization agreement will be reached.
"We’ll operate in a fully sovereign nation under a different set of conditions than what currently exist," Bayer said. "In many respects, we’ll be working for the Iraqis to make them successful."