BOISE – The Idaho National Guard employs 1,000 full-time employees at Gowen Field in Boise. It’s the hub where soldiers train, take classes, and learn and maintain equipment used in battle.
However, there is another unknown place in the high southern Idaho desert where more in-depth training and economic development is being built up, too.
“I think a lot of Idahoans don't have any idea of what we actually have out there, but we have state of the art training equipment facilities that you aren't going to find anywhere else west of the Mississippi river,” said spokesperson for the Idaho National Guard, Colonel Tim Marsano.
It's the Orchard Combat Training Center. By air, it’s roughly ten minutes south of the city of Boise and nearly three times the size of Boise.
The combat training city stretches over 140,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management lands and has 13 combat ranges, each specializing in something different.
There is room for tanks to train, choppers to fly, grenades to launch, a 360 degree live fire house and 22 kilometers of road to connect it all.
On a windy day in April, the members of the 124th Air Support Operations Squad are dressed for battle and training on a complex firing range.
“We are out qualifying with our M4 and our M9 which is our pistol,” said Lt. Colonel Tom Shuler, the commander of the 124th Air Support Operations Squad.
The role for these airmen is to assist with the Army on the ground.
“So we want to be out here firing, having the helicopters out here firing and having the air craft overhead and doing our job with them all together which is what we have to do in combat,” said Shuler.
However, to better prepare for battle, the Idaho National Guard decided to build a staging city complete with rancid smells, life-like props and plenty of land to make soldiers feel like they are really in another part of the world.
Jim Kesl is the site manager overseeing operations for this virtual city.
“This facility is called a Combined Arms Collective Training Facility,” said Kesl. “It is designed to provide an urban training environment with the most realistic training that we can for all users, whether it's the National Guard, the Army, Marine Corp, Air Force, police agencies, SWAT agencies.”
No soldier has set foot at the facility to train yet, but in the summer of 2013 that will change when two units from Alaska and Utah will use this facility for the first time.
The combat scenario is like a video game controlled by a person in a separate building with cameras, buttons and knobs.
The soldiers are given a mission and then met with challenges.
“So they can move and do searches and experience that part of combat,” said Kesl.
There are surprises like human decoy dummies that can drop without notice. There are smells that waft from the jail or a butcher shop. There are even sounds played over a loud speaker in an attempt to remind soldiers they are in a different land.
“This is kind of how life is over there,” said Kesl. “It’s pretty realistic.”
The Orchard Combat Training Center is on a 30-year plan to expand with the help of federal dollars.
Local contractors are currently finishing phase one of a dining facility and 600-bed dorm. The soldiers that come to train at the center will be able to stay overnight with the rest of their unit instead of traveling to Boise to sleep.
Director Mike Woods showed KTVB the progress of the mess hall.
“It will be able to feed 300 people at a time in an hour,” said Woods. “And all the equipment is provided for them.”
The construction is giving the Treasure Valley an economic shot in the arm by hiring local workers. However, that's not all. Woods says even when the facilities are complete the economic lifeline will continue. The Idaho National Guard is hoping others will take notice and come train.
“When a unit comes here to train, the impact for the Idaho economy and Boise and Nampa area is huge because the unit buys water, fuel, parts to fix their equipment,” said Woods.
In the fall of 2013, the $40 million phase two will begin, but Woods said federal budget cuts almost stopped that because of the sequester.
“It was questionable,” he said. “We didn't know if we were going to be just like everybody else with the cut backs, furloughs and stuff.”
However, the Idaho National Guard and the Orchard Combat Training Center was placed in a top position when select funds were allocated.
Congress gave the $40 million in promised funds to the Orchard Combat Training Center pushing construction back but not stopping it.
“What we do know is that our leaders in Washington recognize the value of what we have here in Idaho,” said Marsano.
“This is such a big attractor for our training center to bring people in,” said Woods.
Although many may not know about the Orchard Combat Training Center, those with the Idaho National Guard want that to change. It's at this facility, soldiers from all over the northwest and beyond will prepare for war in a combat training environment like none other.
“We can bring soldiers out here to maximize their training along with helping the economy,” said Woods.
Woods thinks Idahoans should feel proud the facility is here and so close.