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One of nearly 700 California desert tortoises, a species listed as threatened under the federal and state Endangered Species Act, number 166.614 2554 is being flown off the reservation, so to speak. Along with 40 other tortoises today, he’s been dropped off in this sector of the Mojave, about 20 miles east and 10 miles north of Barstow, for relocation — away from the home he’s known all of his life: Fort Irwin, California. It’s all part of the first and largest military-sponsored tortoise airlift in history. Which makes him collateral damage in a war far different from the one the soldiers were preparing for in Medina Wasl.
For years, the tanks of Fort Irwin and the California desert tortoise of the Western Mojave have lived together in relative peace. Recently, however, the détente has blown up, and, like many conflicts around the world, it’s territorial.
See, the National Training Center at Fort Irwin needs more land. One reason is that brigade-sized training exercises involve significant man- and machine power, usually 4,000 to 5,000 soldiers, plus all their equipment — tanks, artillery, transport vehicles, armored vehicles, etc. Another significant factor is that the distance in which our armed forces can engage the enemy has increased from ranges of up to 12 miles in 1980, when the center was designated, to up to 60 miles now. Also, tactical operations move at a much quicker pace than they used to, from about a 10-mile-per-hour average to 25 miles per hour these days. Thus, the 100 Hours War, as the Persian Gulf invasion is sometimes called. Indeed, the effectiveness of Gulf War I is often credited to the training our troops did at Fort Irwin.
Unfortunately for number 166.614 2554, the land the military covets is one of the few areas where the California desert tortoise has thrived in recent decades. Now, the land has become a political and environmental battlefield. On one side, is the welfare of our soldiers, on the other, according to its defenders, is the future of one of the planet’s oldest species.
Fort Irwin, in one form or another, has been lurking just beyond the Los Angeles Basin, not far past the Cajon Pass, somewhat out of sight and somewhat out of mind for nearly 70 years. In 1940, President Roosevelt established a military reservation of some 1,000 square miles, where Fort Irwin now exists, in a vast expanse of the Mojave Desert. It was originally called the Mojave Anti-Aircraft Range and was renamed Camp Irwin in honor of Maj. Gen. G. Leroy Irwin, the World War I commander of the 57th Field Artillery Brigade in 1942. Contrary to lore, Gen. Patton did not train there. The camp was deactivated in 1944 and then reactivated in 1951 to train combat units for the Korean War.
The base was designated Fort Irwin in 1961. Artillery and engineer units were deployed directly to Vietnam from Fort Irwin during that war. In the ’70s, the post was semiretired and used by National Guard and Army Reserve units. In 1980, its fortunes reversed when it was selected to become the site of the new National Training Center.
“All the American units that went to the Gulf War went through here,” Wagstaffe tells me. “We had the best Republican Guard in the world.” And in the ’80s, when the final showdown was going to be with the Soviet Union, Wagstaffe says, “We had the best Soviet unit in the world — including any in the Soviet Union.” (Of course, given the fresh conflict between Russia and Georgia, one could argue that the Army needs to get busy bringing back some of those old Soviet units.)
Fort Irwin is the only training area in the world that can handle force-on-force, live-fire war games for heavy brigade-sized military forces. Training generally takes place over a 28-day rotation, the final two weeks of which are realistic war games that try to prepare soldiers for the types of scenarios they will encounter in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. Wagstaffe says that the unit out of Fort Riley, nearing the end of its training cycle during our visit, will soon be deployed to Iraq — as early as September or December.