Hill Air Force Base • Hunkered in a foxhole, Technical Sgt. Steve Lauer keeps an eye on a ridge covered with rabbit bush and sage as a man appears in a stand of trees, wearing a pink headscarf, a machine gun and a smile.
"As-salamu alaykum!" he shouts. "I am local militia! We are on the same side!"
He approaches, ignoring commands from Lauer and his fellow airmen to "Halt! Get down!" Suddenly gunfire rings out from behind a bush to the south. The airmen fire back as another enemy opens fire from the northeast.
But their new "friend" in the pink headscarf divides their attention as they defend their temporary camp at Hill Air Force Base as part of operation "Raging Bull," the base's annual live training course.
"[The training] helps us know what we're looking for," said Lauer, who returned in July from a seven-month tour in Afghanistan and likely will go back in the spring. "It keeps us current on the rules of engagement, and how to act in different situations."
The squadron still isn't sure about Pink Headscarf Man, aka Technical Sgt. Kenneth Willingham, a member of the base's security forces and instructor in the week-long live-action training scenario. Just 20 minutes earlier, he was "killed" as a hostile combatant in a border skirmish between aggressor "Country Orange" and the neutral nation of "Merca," which U.S. forces are defending.
"It's a classic bully situation," Col. Darin Humiston explains.
A week into the intervention, things have devolved, says Humiston, leader of the group. The squadron is tasked to conduct and defend radar surveillance operations.
Incursions from Orange forces continue, along with trouble from frustrated locals.
"We're waiting for a political solution," Humiston says.
Meanwhile, the squadron has dealt with an assortment of engagements. On Thursday morning, a raid occurred during shift change. Earlier in the week, combatants tried to take over a communications center. Sometimes the airmen are required to pay the ultimate price.
"I died once," Staff Sgt. Aaron Huang says sheepishly. It was a mortar attack, and instructors wanted to see how the other airmen responded to a death in the unit. They told Huang to take the fall.
"But I came back to life," Huang says.
The objective of each exercise is to surprise the airmen, Humiston says. They don't know when or where attacks will occur.
"It's important for our airmen to get used to that constant pressure," he says. "You fight like you train."
Everyone in training is firing blanks, but the cacophony of shots can be disorienting and stressful. Especially with Willingham shouting in his pink scarf amidst the chaos. When a combatant comes out with his hands up, Willingham helpfully tries to take him into custody for the Americans.
But the combatant grabs Willingham's gun and turns toward the airmen, who promptly shoot him dead. After a spray of gunfire, Willingham rises from the ground unscathed. He spits on the combatant's body, and the airmen tell him to leave.
The attack is subdued, and the airmen can relax until the next one.