By Airman 1st Class Michael Washburn
355th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
PLAYAS, N.M. – I love everything military. The guns, gear, vehicles all that stuff. I especially have an interest in special operations. The stuff they do and the equipment they get to use is just awesome. So when I found out I would be heading to New Mexico to write an article on the Playas Training and Research Facility, needless to say, I was anxious.
We were covering Playas as part of D-M’s Angel Thunder training exercise where special operations groups and units from all over the world converge on D-M to train and participate in exercises.
When I arrived, myself and the group I went there with, took a tour of the facility. It’s quite impressive. The training facility used to be a coal-mining town and when it shut down, the facility was abandoned. The houses are all single story and most of them completely empty of any furnishing. Some of the streets around the compound are used to replicate Afghan neighborhoods, while other streets are populated with families that live in Playas year-round.
During our tour, we ran into the Border Patrol’s tactical team, BORTAC. They were just getting done practicing breaching and clearing one of the vacant houses.
After the tour was over and we had our buffet dinner of burgers, hot dogs and fries, I was able to watch a nighttime urban evasion exercise through the abandoned streets.
We were told this scenario was a convoy that was hit by an improvised explosive device. The pararescuemen in the convoy would have to fight their way through hostile operational force infested streets and try to make their way to an American safe house in an Afghan village. It sounded awesome and I couldn’t wait for this thing to start.
I sat on the roof of a house down from the safe house in full Afghan clothing to help keep the realism of the scenario and waited for the PJ’s. I noticed some A-10s and helicopters in the sky that were providing over watch. They were linked up with the PJ’s and would flag the operational force with infrared, so the PJ’s could avoid them. I was expecting to hear lots of gunfire from both sides, but surprisingly, no shots were fired. The PJ’s were able to complete the mission without anyone getting hurt. I got to say, I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t any crazy gunfight, but what a great display of talent and job proficiency from the PJ’s.
This exercise was awesome. Not only were there many different players participating, but throughout the scenario, ground flares were ignited. These flares represented surface to air missiles. The aircrafts overhead deployed counter measures to the SAMS. At this point, I think my lower jaw had dropped to the floor. This exercise is massive with many different working parts and I can’t imagine trying to do these scenarios anywhere else but here.
My first night is over and I already love what I see. This is like a paintball player’s paradise. There’s just so much cool stuff going on. I’m bummed out that I only have one day left before I leave.
The second day consisted of one long exercise. Outside of the main facility is an area built to replicate an Afghan town. I was told that reference pictures were taken from Afghanistan and then used to replicate the city to make it look as real as possible. This town is bad news; you definitely wouldn’t want to take a vacation here. Hostages have been taken and it’s up to BORTAC to save the day. Unfortunately, I was only able to watch on some TV’s in a room far away from the city.
I saw BORTAC execute their mission in spectacular fashion. They divided into three separate elements. Two of which would clear the village, while the other would search for the hostages. The teams used tear gas and popped smoke to mask their movements and act as a non-verbal way of communicating where they were going. As with last night’s exercise, an A-10 flies overhead and helps eliminate some pesky bad guys. Overall, the mission was a success for the Border Patrol.
After I was able to watch the scenario unfold, myself and a few other were driven to one of the neighborhood streets where BORTAC handed off the hostage so he could be flown away via helicopter. We arrived before the helicopter did, which provided us an opportunity to ready our cameras for some amazing shots of the incoming copter. I may have gotten a little bit over excited at the sight of the sweet looking aircraft. When the helicopter was taking off, instead of getting behind one of the houses on the street like the rest of my compatriots to block me from the dust that had been kicked up by the rotors, I thought it would be cool to get some shots of the copter lifting off. Little did I know they would fly directly overhead and cake me head to toe in dirt. Even though I would spend the rest of the day feeling like Pig-Pen from Charlie Brown, it was totally worth it.
After viewing the helicopter extraction, my time at Playas was over. I’ve got to admit, I wouldn’t mind hanging out here for another day or two and just watch exciting scenarios. It’s clear to me why so many government organizations and other military branches utilize the training facility at Playas. The large scale operations and the attention to detail ensure the scenarios are as accurate as possible. Even though I’m leaving, I would gladly come back here in a heartbeat.