IA in the NEWS
From The Arkansas Times, June 27, 2003
Midnight. White clouds of breath seep from the nose and mouth into the cold, crisp air. Before approaching the dark building, the black-clad men check their gear: Kevlar body armor, protective helmets and masks, weapons, ammunition. The mission is a hostage rescue; the number of the enemy is unknown.
A half-size Remington shotgun (nicknamed a "little pig" as in "little pig, let me in" from the Three Little Pigs nursery tale) is placed against the door lock. A shocking blast from the weapon and a hard kick knocks the door open. The untrained spectator assumes all hell is about to break loose.
The team enters single file, weapons at the ready and left hand constantly on the shoulder of the person in front. Music blares from one of the rooms off a dark hallway.
Throughout the whirlwind of activity the black line moves with steady efficiency, belying the racing hearts underneath the body armor. This moment is the culmination of hours of training - repetitive movement has becomes muscle memory. Now is not the time to rely on a brain dulled by fear, but on the speed and precision of subconscious reflex.
The mission, in a secluded area just off Interstate 40's Galloway exit, is a tangible link to American special operations soldiers now fighting to maintain peace on the streets of Baghdad.
There, in an area farm land, swamp, trucking companies and truck stops and as far removed from the Persian Gulf as one can get, is the Direct Action Resource Center. It is the country's first and largest facility dedicated to urban operations training for both the U.S. military and civilian law enforcement. The 800-acre facility is about 12 minutes away from the Little Rock Airforce Base in one direction and the Little Rock airport in the other.
DARC (pronounced "darcy") is run by former Marine infantryman John Hickman, and was a firearms and tactics instructor for the U.S. Air Marshals in the wake of 9-11.
Even before the 9-11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., U.S. military engagements in Somalia and Bosnia brought the grim reality of street fighting to the forefront. The small spaces and tight corners of buildings, the presence of civilians and unfamiliar terrain can cripple even the best equipment and manpower. Hickman and partner Richard Mason, a 13-year Green Beret deployed through the Army Reserve, saw a need for a special ops training facility in the heartland, and opened DARC seven years ago as a super-secret facility that trained special forces troops and police SWAT teams from all over the country.
Mason (who is from El Dorado) and Memphis native Hickman chose North Little Rock because of its proximity to the Little Rock Air Force Base, Camp Robinson, the Little Rock Airport and Interstates 30 and 40.
"We've trained local, state and federal law enforcement and almost every military special operations group out there," Hickman said. Even non-police federal agencies - like the Department of Energy - have used DARC for disaster preparedness training in the wake of 9-11.
DARC has opened up to civilians in the past year, including wealthy foreign nationals who face kidnapping threats, corporate clients who get a new angle on team-building. It even offers what might be called extreme vacations.
Twisty, two-lane Valentine Road leads to the gated DARC complex, on what must have been pastureland in another lifetime. In the distance, the wingless fuselage of a DC-9 airplane stands like a sentinel beside the driveway.
Farther down are other sights incongruous with the rural landscape: a 1970s-era city bus, what looks like a compound made of gray cinderblock, a Huey helicopter mounted on a skeletal steel tower high in the air.
The center has four full-time and 16 adjunct instructors, including Scott Holloway, a founding member of SEAL Team SIX; Pavel Tsatouline, a former physical training instructor for Soviet special forces, and Tim Williams, a 23-year veteran of the Amarillo, Texas, police department and a SWAT team commander. Other adjunct instructors are former Green Berets, Delta Force and military pararescue members.
Hickman and Mason have both worked for privately-owned training facilities. Hickman said they weren't doing the job right: The training would emphasize only parts of a mission, which Hickman likens to picking single frames out of a film.
"With SWAT teams for instance - they're magically at the door and then they're magically in the room and that's it," Hickman said.
"It's one of those cases where we thought we could do it better. We thought we could fill a niche," Hickman said.
DARC's philosophy is to make the training as real as possible by creating what's called a "full mission profile" - figuring out what the mission objectives are, planning how teams will get to the site, how they will enter the building, and what their actions will be when they enter.
DARC creates specialized programs for each group it trains. During a week-long program, units will learn tactics and then participate in mock runs with role players who are usually volunteers from local law enforcement or Little Rock Air Force Base security police.
The culmination of training is what Hickman calls a full-blown scenario based on that team's mission.
Students are subjected to the extreme physical conditions that can occur during an urban tactical operation, including sleep deprivation, little food, and constantly changing situations. Instructors set off flash-bangs and other diversionary devices. Loud music - anything to disorient and distract - is played. Team members must adapt to constantly evolving scenarios.
"We have female and male role players. Some are hostages, some are bad guys. There'll be screaming, and some [role players] cooperate - some don't," Hickman said. "You're not just going into a house shooting paper targets that don't shoot back."
"Simunitions" - a cross between paintball pellets and real bullets - are used to add another element of realism. Loaded with brightly colored laundry detergent, simunitions are used with actual weapons that have been modified. By using their own weapons, teams can troubleshoot any gear or equipment problems.
"It's better to learn those lessons here than in a real situation," Hickman said.
There are consequences to getting shot with simunitions. "If you get shot it stings - it'll leave a serious welt on you," he said. "It's as real as we can get it. The young guys learn that you did everything right and still got hit."
Another problem Hickman and Mason identified was that a lot of the other facilities weren't challenging - teams were using the same set-up over and over.
DARC's 6,100-square-foot main shoot house, made to simulate an apartment or office building, can be divided into four different houses or used as one big complex. Hickman said the shoot house is flexible enough that a group could have a full training week and never see the same floor plan.
There is also a system of catwalks over the shoot house rooms to allow instructors to monitor the action. The missions are also videotaped for later assessment.
On the other side of the facility is "Little Mogadishu" - an urban assault course with low concrete buildings laid out like a village in a third world country. Built like a maze, the urban village is a treacherous course made up of blind corners, multiple windows and pathways made of concrete poured over dirt and gravel.
"Most teams find this a tough nut to crack," Hickman said. For added challenge during night training, instructors will set bonfires to disrupt night vision goggles.
DARC also boasts several shooting ranges, including a 600-yard urban sniper range, a rappel tower, and a classroom, as well as a two-story frame house.
The center also has facilities to teach infiltration techniques from both land and water and is a certified drop zone.
One recent scenario had team members fighting their way through the village to the DC 9.
"Anything you can possibly do on a mission we do it here," Hickman said.
DARC donates training to local police departments to help them start up SWAT teams. The Benton police emergency response team is one such unit, getting free access to the facilities one day a month in exchange for playing the "bad guys" when DARC trains other teams.
Benton ERT commander Lt. Darin Clay said members of the unit also attend specialized classes in hostage rescue, witness protection and counter-sniper training.
"Without DARC, this kind of training would be cost prohibitive," Clay said. "We couldn't afford to go out of state and there's nothing like this anywhere else in the state."
Clay said the ability to train for a real-life situation is invaluable. "Anything we can imagine that can come up, we can train for it."
Ironically, the events of Sept. 11, 2001, cost DARC some of its millitary clients. "The military clients are all working so we don't see them as much - no one's training," Hickman said.
Conversely, he adds, civilian demand has gone up. "People feel more vulnerable after Sept. 11 and are more interested in protecting their families," he said. Some of these clients include wealthy European and Mexican families that face a high kidnap risk. Not only are their bodyguards being trained, but family members themselves receive instruction in case their security detail is overpowered, learning such skills as weapon recovery and usage and defensive driving. All foreign nationals who want to train at the facility must receive clearance from the State Department.
DARC is also becoming popular for corporate team-building events.
"I think [big companies] are starting to see how small unit tactics in the military and the stress it puts on you, what a cohesive team that can form," Hickman said. He said they might learn some firearm safety, but what they're really learning is planning a mission where employees work together as team. "They've got some commonality, they've formed bonds that maybe haven't been there before," he said.
There are also firearms safety classes open to the public, including the concealed carry class required for a concealed weapons permit, and a women-only class.
In November 2002, DARC branched out into new territory: the extreme vacation. The three-day, $3,500 package (not including transportation and lodging) is offered through a partnership with Incredible Adventures, a Florida-based company that offers such high octane fare as space flight training and flying MiGs over Moscow.
Incredible Adventures president Jane Reifert said in a telephone interview that the Urban Ops section of their website was currently the most popular.
Reifert said the average person interested in the urban ops extreme vacation is usually the stockbroker, lawyer, doctor, and dentist type.
"They regretted not going into the military and this is a chance to learn," she said.
Paul Greenhalgh, 47, attended the urban ops trip last November. The Canadian businessman said did it for the adrenaline rush.
"I'm too old to do it for real," he said.
Greenhalgh said it was the most physically punishing thing he'd ever done. "When I got shot toward the end it was almost a relief. I thought, 'Good, now I can lie down.' "
"They don't mislead you on the [Incredible Adventures] website - you will have bruises," said Mark Dreusicke, 42. The Iowa car dealer was also on the November trip.
He said he did it to satisfy his inner GI Joe. "I've never been in the military, but I desired to get into a highly competitive situation with a certain amount of risk," he said.
Dreusicke said one of the best parts of the experience was finding a new resource within him. "It's so real, that you forget it's all fun and games. You think, I'm getting shot at here, and you start to react. No one panicked, though," he said.
Hickman described the three-day course as "almost like a glorified paintball game."
"The biggest thing I tell instructors on the extreme vacations is that it's entertaining, it's not training," he said.
But for client Dreusicke, "It's far beyond paintball in its level of intensity, especially the technical aspects of it," he said.
"They see the stuff on TV and they want to do it," Hickman said. "I'll put them in full gear, I'll give them the body armor and after about two hours their knees are sore and they're doing the Darth Vader breathing. They're like, wow."
Greenhalgh said the trip gave him a greater understanding of what special operations and SWAT team members do. "It made you appreciate what those young guys are going through," he said.
"The experience was wonderful - I had high expectations and it exceeded them," Dreusicke said.
But would they do it again?
"In a heartbeat," Greenhalgh said.
Hickman said the facility plans to run three extreme vacations a year. A new package that will be offered is water-borne operations.
"It's for the wannabe SEALs. We'll do some small boat work, patrolling through the swamp, water infiltrations," he said.
DARC has also gotten the attention of Hollywood. The British TV show "Danger" shot four segments last December and the History Channel's "Conquest" filmed a segment at the end of February. "Conquest" host Peter Woodward travels the world seeking to master various disciplines, from medieval tournaments to bull riding. In the DARC episode, after receiving training from instructor Tim Williams, Woodward and his team's task was to complete a SWAT hostage rescue with the Benton ERT serving as the hostages and bad guys. The episode first aired in April.
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