FORT PICKETT, Va. -- An opening sequence from Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" captivated movie theater audiences in 1998 with its shocking and unflinching images of American soldiers landing on the wet sand of Normandy's beaches during the 1944 D-Day invasion.
Today, as Marines train to battle terrorism and other threats around the globe, the men and women responsible for designing the scenarios that will prepare troops for battle could find it difficult to capture the vivid realism Hollywood creates in movies.
Marines and Sailors from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit are training, here, during the Marine Expeditionary Unit Exercise from Sept. 28-Oct. 6 with help from Strategic Operations, a San Diego-based company that uses professional actors, make-up artists and pyrotechnics to make mock battlefields come alive.
The MEU was sold on the possibilities of Strategic Operations' scenario enhancements earlier this year after observing the 24th MEU's Training in Urban Environment Exercise, which was augmented by the effects company, said Capt. Shawn A. Rickrode, the 26th MEU's anti-terrorism force protection officer.
"The realism it gives the training is the next best thing to being in the situation," he said. "They provide an effect you can't mimic in day-to-day training."
Bringing the unit's ambitious training schedule to life was Strategic Operations' main objective, said Stu Segall, the company's president and founder.
"I call it stress inoculation," he said. "Our aim is to provide [Marines] with a realistic glimpse of their possible destinations, and what they might encounter there."
Strategic Operations assisted in numerous day and night mass casualty exercises during MEUEX, providing actors and real amputees to make the operations as real as possible. Make-up artists used fake blood and gray skin-toning powders to complete the gruesome images of the casualties and their wounds.
Taking the troops out of their comfort zones to help prepare them for the grim realities of combat is the goal, said Matt Carter, an actor with Strategic Operations who lost a leg in a motorcycle accident in 1981.
"If I see horror and hesitation on their face, I know I've done my job," he said.
Mass casualty training was only one aspect Strategic Operations brought to the MEUEX. Interaction with foreign cultures was also seen as important to the 26th MEU.
The cast of 32 actors the company brought here were mostly Middle-Easterners, including at least 20 native Iraqis, said Segall.
Throughout the training, the professional role-players could be found nearly everywhere the MEU was conducting operations, giving the troops an opportunity to interact with the culture they could encounter on a day-to-day basis during the MEU's upcoming deployment.
No matter where the Marines were operating on base, one thing they could count on more than just interactions with actors in makeup or dressed like Iraqis, was a possible attack from any direction.
Strategic Operations added a little boom to MEUEX with an assortment of pyrotechnic devices designed to simulate improvised explosive devices and rocket propelled grenades.
The effects provided by Strategic Operations made the training the most realistic many of the troops had ever encountered.
"It definitely makes the training like real life," said Pfc. Ryan Gent, a rifleman with Golf Company, Battalion Landing Team, 2nd Bn., 2nd Marine Regiment. "They're always telling us to train like its real back in the rear, but when you're using other Marines as enemies and casualties, it's just not the same."
Petty Officer Third Class Jason E. Hendricks, a hospital corpsman with the 26th MEU Command Element, agreed.
"I've never had training like that," he said after treating two actors in a casualty evacuation scenario on the base convoy live-fire range. "Most of the time you get a plastic [wound] or have a simulated casualty fold their leg up under them like it's gone."
"They were acting just like an injured person would," he continued. "They were asking me if they would ever be able to run again."
Strategic Operations and its employees are glad to know their efforts could very well save the lives of the more than 30,000 troops they have helped train since the company's founding, said Segall.
"It's a tremendous feeling for all of us to help the Marine Corps and aid in the Global War on Terror," he said.
Justin Bernard, an amputee who acts for the company, agreed.
"People say I'm the star," he said. "I don't think I'm the star, the Marines are the stars."
After wrapping up its training here, the MEU will head back to Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune for a short break before heading out to sea for its next step in a rigorous six-month pre-deployment training program, a two-week exercise aboard the ships of the Bataan Strike Group.
The MEU is scheduled to deploy in support of the Global War on Terrorism in early 2007.
For more information on the 26th MEU, visit www.26meu.usmc.mil.