AUBURN – The simulated gunfire erupted as soon as the lead truck halted.
Soldiers emerged from behind trees and sandy berms, firing blanks from their M-16 rifles. Several hundred yards away, on the other side of this pretend desert, a 50-caliber rifle boomed. And more soldiers emerged from their cover, carrying water balloons meant to represent grenades.
Here, on a sandy plain in Auburn, the men and women of Charlie Company of the Maine Army National Guard re-enacted the scenarios of Iraq.
“It’s real world stuff,” said Spc. Norman Voter, a Purple Heart recipient from Auburn. “And we’re doing our best.”
The company training, from the Guard’s 133rd Engineer Battalion, is part of a statewide effort aimed at using the techniques learned from first-hand war knowledge to prepare soldiers for a possible return.
As many as 30 percent of the company’s 100-plus soldiers have joined since the unit returned home in March 2005. For them, it was an opportunity to learn techniques the veterans acquired on the job in cities like Mosul and Tikrit.
For the veterans, it was a refresher.
“It all comes back,” said Brian Bolduc, 22, of Auburn.
In Iraq, he’d worked as a fuel handler, often driving gasoline trucks in convoys.
During Friday’s exercises, he manned the lead truck, driving slowly and pointing his M-16 out of the window, a routine show of force among American-run convoys.
He drove until he saw an ammunition box in his path with a claymore mine attached to the top. For this exercise, the unarmed mine acted as a stand-in for the roadside bombs that have been so numerous and deadly in Iraq.
Bolduc stopped his truck about 30 feet shy of the mine and the gunfire began.
It was the first time since Iraq that Bolduc and the others had participated in such an attack.
It went on for about a minute. Then everyone, the good guys and the bad guys, ceased fire, gathered in a circle and began talking about what happened.
Lt. Scott Lewis, who’d been watching, ran the briefing.
He congratulated the dozen or so soldiers, all veterans of Iraq, for responding well to the attack. But there were problems.
One of the soldiers had jumped into the fray from the wrong side of the truck, “right into the kill zone,” Lewis said.
And had there been any casualties, no one had determined before they left which vehicle might become an ambulance.
It’s the kind of thing that gets left out when a unit is rushed into a mission, as they so often were in Iraq, Lewis said.
Lewis, who designed the drill with Staff Sgt. Jonathan Boubel, said he intended to push his leaders.
As much as the individual soldiers would learn or relearn techniques, his leaders would be tested for their ability to make snap decisions.
“It happened all the time in Iraq,” Lewis said. “You never had the time you wanted.”
In Iraq, the unit had exceeded all expectations, earning the Meritorious Unit Award. Though the battalionwide award was announced last year, the presentation is planned on Sunday, the last day of its weekend-long drill.
“It’s a huge honor,” said Capt. Michael Mitchell, Charlie Company’s commander. “Few units earn the distinction.”
During its service in Iraq, the 500-soldier battalion completed 877 missions: building roads, clinics and shelters across Iraq’s three northernmost provinces.
There were also casualties. Four soldiers were killed and 42 earned Purple Hearts for wounds sustained in combat.
In Iraq, Maine soldiers learned what became known as the “nine lines,” a form used for directing a helicopter in a medical evacuation.
The form includes spaces for specific grid coordinates to land, whether the site is secure and how serious the medical emergency may be.
On Friday, they practiced that, too, calling for help and reading the nine lines to a pilot.
As the afternoon attack concluded, Lt. Lisa Sessions called in a Black Hawk helicopter from the Bangor-based 112th Medical Company.
Voter, one of several soldiers present who was injured in Iraq, watched as the helicopter stirred up a swirling cloud of yellow dust and landed softly.
Voter might have been airlifted to a hospital, had things gone differently.
On June 20, 2004, he was driving a Humvee when it struck a roadside bomb.
“We were delivering the mail,” he said, shrugging off the shrapnel wounds to his ear and hip.
Capt. Mitchell, who had been sitting beside him when the bomb hit, called Voter, “the luckiest soldier in Iraq.”
Armor plating in the Humvee door saved Voter’s life. Deadly pieces of shrapnel had missed him by inches.
Here in Auburn, within sight of a Little League ball field, he seemed luckier still.
The soldier carried an automatic weapon, but he fought Friday with water balloons.