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Nevada depot blast: Was exercise that killed seven really necessary?

The training accident at Hawthorne Army Depot came during a live-fire exercise. These exercises carry risk, but military officials say they are needed to prepare troops for battle.

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US Marines pass through a mountainous area during a rough terrain driving course in Hawthorne, Nevada in this file photo. Hawthorne Army Depot is often used to prepare troops for Afghanistan and for live-fire exercises.

Lance Cpl. Uriel De Luna-Felix/US Marine Corps/Reuters/File

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The deaths of seven US troops – and the injuries of several others – in a live-fire training exercises at a military base in Nevada Monday raises questions about just how necessary such training is for troops in an era of modern warfare.

Though the cause of the fatalities, which happened Hawthorne Army Depot at 10 p.m. local time, is still under investigation, it appears that a 60-millimeter mortar shell exploded as Marines were preparing to fire the shell.

Would they get the same experience using blank rounds that still simulated the noise and confusion of battle, for example? Senior US military officials say the answer to that question is "no." Though such exercises entail some measure of risk, they are vital, the officials suggest. 

Some argue that the danger inherent in live-fire exercises is key to instilling a sense of fear, so that troops can come to envision in some small measure what battle will be like. Others contend that using live rounds during training hones troops by making them more focused during drills.

In the end, the point of training is to do everything possible to make the men and women of the military prepared to go to war, and live-fire exercises are seen as being a crucial part of that process.

“We don’t want war to be the first time a soldier has handled – and is comfortable – with live rounds,” says Lt. Col. Jerome Pionk, the Army’s team chief for weapons, environment, and technology.

“It’s not so much the sense of danger but the awareness of responsibility that is heightened during live-fire exercises,” adds Colonel Pionk.

This experience breeds confidence, Pionk says. He recalls his first live-fire training exercise in the Army: “I didn’t come from a hunting culture,” he says.

“When you get out there with blanks, you know it’s not real. When you have that live ammo, though, there’s a sense of heightened responsibility,” he says. “You get absorbed in that. You think, ‘I’ve got live bullets here. I’ve got to take this seriously.’ ”

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