LOS ANGELES – A U.S. military patrol unit slowly moves through a quiet Afghanistan village, when sudden enemy gunfire rings out and their convoy is ambushed by rocket-propelled grenades. The soldiers spring into action, confronted with an exploding IED and sniper fire from a house nearby. With two men down, fellow platoon members perform tactical combat casualty care as the firefight continues, transitioning to casualty evacuation as the wounded are rushed to the nearest hospital.
Only this isn’t going down in a province near the Tajikistan border, it’s in a replica village located on the 20-acre lot of Stu Segall Productions in San Diego, California. Once one of the largest independent TV/movie studios in the United States, having been the base for hit TV shows like “Veronica Mars” and “Renegade” and movies such as “Bring It On,” and “Flying By,” Segall’s studio is now known as Strategic Operations Inc. (STOPS). And instead of filming entertainment, it employs the “magic of Hollywood” to create hyper-realistic training environments and simulations for military, law enforcement, and other organizations.
“This is make-believe but it is real make-believe. We are working with people that sign a piece of paper saying they are willing to get shot at and it’s incumbent on us to support them. We try to help make what they do better and maybe less stressful and safer due to the lessons learned here,” Segall, who transformed his studio into STOPS following the 9/11 terror attacks, told FOX411. “We have had people come back from war saying the training here was worse than their tour.”
Segall’s team employs state-of-the-art battlefield special effects based on motion picture technology to simulate the “fog of war." To enhance the level of realism in each scenario, STOPS hires actors – many of who are former servicemen and women themselves – to play everything from civilians and government officials to religious and tribal leaders, interpreters, and military personnel. All players are outfitted with wardrobe, props and vehicles to replicate the designated scene, and spend hours at the hands of professional hair and makeup artists to be physically transformed into the part.
On any given day, there are troops, border-patrol units, med-school students, SWAT teams and even war correspondents moving in and out of the shoot house, ship simulator, downed helicopter, fast rope tower or torture chamber for specialized training. There’s even Hollywood-style, high-tech video cameras for after-action review.
STOPS also has in its repertoire a “cut suit.” Made to precisely replicate the size, texture and anatomy of inside the human body, the suit allows for interaction and realistic surgical procedures to be practiced in high-stress conditions.
“We have electronics and pump blood out into the extremities. We also have a reservoir in (the mannequin) and have blood pressure and a pulse. These pulses drop off,” explained Kit Levell, a Vietnam veteran and the Executive Vice President of STOPS. “There are operating rooms, forward resuscitating suites, red lights and a lot of noise. The instructors get to stand above so they can observe without interfering.”
And there are consequences to making mistakes. Should one accidentally nick the small intestines while on the operating table, a vile stench fills up the room so you’re well aware of your error. The facility is also working with different branches of the armed forces to develop treatment plans to assist those suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
“We had a whole group of Marines in here off and on for two years, and after a while you were able to see that after the gunfire went off the village they were able to get used to it,” Segall said, noting that when platoons can’t make it the studio, his team takes a little Hollywood to them – transporting sets, props and pyrotechnics to different bases around the world for more detailed levels of training.
So does Segall ever miss his Hollywood days?
“I don’t miss it all. I get to work with real people doing real things, and see a real result. I don’t care what happens on television, that is make-believe,” he added. “This is the real world. A lot of folks who come through here haven’t come home. It becomes very personal. We do what we can to minimize what these brave men and women have to go through.”
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