Snow from an April storm still clings to earthen berms at Dragon Arms shooting range as two camouflaged soldiers hunch forward in weathered plastic chairs.
Pointing what appear to be M16s at distant cut-outs of human torsos, they gently squeeze the triggers, sending percussive blasts ringing across the El Paso County countryside east of Colorado Springs.
When they take a break, their squad commander explains the soldiers' presence and that of three others practicing nearby with pistols.
"It's how we train," he says, earplugs in hand. "I'd rather spend my time [training] than making a phone call for a medic."
Having a medic present is required to fire weapons at Fort Carson, and units must plan training activities and schedule range time weeks or months in advance.
The squad commander at Dragon Arms declines to give details of these requirements, but he suggests off-base training is an efficient way for soldiers to polish needed skills with minimal hassle. And though he speaks with a soldier's directness, he refuses to identify himself or his unit.
He bristles when asked if the facilities on base meet his squad's training needs. With a don't-go-there tone, he explains he has more than 20 years' experience in multiple branches of the Armed Services.
"I freakin' love the military," he says.
Local soldiers apparently have been training at Dragon Arms for years. Retired Lt. Col. David Kutchinski, reached through Fort Carson's public affairs office, says he and other soldiers practiced there on their own time before the start of the Iraq war in 2003.
Since then, commanders have found they could do some of their specialized training at the private range, bringing authorization letters and securely transporting any Army weapons to the site in military vehicles.
Kutchinski, who spent 22 months in Iraq, says he recently spent several days at Dragon Arms working with a small Fort Carson unit headed for combat.
Mel "Dragon Man" Bernstein, the range's owner, encourages more soldiers to do likewise. He's just built a new range only for them, a labyrinthine pit dug into the earth and fitted with wood panels to simulate houses. Surrounding berms allow soldiers to fire in three directions, as combat might demand.
To get to the range, Bernstein moves a construction cone and swings open a gate before driving down a muddy slope. An Iraqi flag waits at a T-junction.
"Welcome to Baghdad Village," a sign reads. "Built to help train Ft. Carson Soldiers in close combat fighting areas."
Bernstein's enthusiasm to bring soldiers onto the range he built and paid for is nearly palpable: "This facility will probably save lives."
Kutchinski remembers traveling on "Route Irish," the road to Baghdad's airport, and watching a rear-heavy '70s-era sedan slow in front of him. His driver slowed, then stopped. Soldiers were preparing to fire warning tracers behind the car when it exploded, deadening their ears and peppering the front of their Suburban with shrapnel.
Though the crew managed to drive away, Kutchinski says, he still thinks about that day. And the lessons he brought back are many. With shoddy suspension systems, he found, cars packing heavy explosives often sagged in back. Soldiers who see such a sag should keep their distance.
At Dragon Arms, Kutchinski says, he has worked with soldiers on how to halt such a car when the driver isn't stopping.
"Shooting at the engine is just for Hollywood," Kutchinski says. The key to stopping a car is taking out the driver; they looked in one class at where to aim on a door so a bullet will penetrate.
Fort Carson's training facilities work great for developing basic skills, Kutchinski says, but small units specializing in clearing buildings and other close-up work benefit from any extra training time. Often, he says, soldiers will train on their own time using personal weapons, substituting semi-automatic AR-15 rifles for automatic, military-issue M16s.
There is, he adds, also a procedure allowing soldiers to train off-base with their military-issued weapons. Sometimes they head to Dragon Arms, Kutchinski says, where Bernstein works out flat fees or charges $10 per soldier.
"It's a great backup for what we have at Fort Carson," Kutchinski says.
In addition to three shooting ranges, Bernstein's 220 acres north of Highway 94 hold a paintball field, a dirt bike park, a gun store and a 32,000-square-foot museum crammed full of war relics.
He punctuates tours with a question that comes off more as a statement: "Pretty cool, huh?" He seems almost awed to have created a slice of heaven on earth, complete with machine guns and armored personnel carriers.
"It's like my own world," he says.
In Bernstein's world, there are no regulations stopping soldiers from igniting gasoline in a training exercise or rigging a junked car to run in circles before stopping it with machine guns.
Bernstein is almost gleeful at the possibilities.
"Over here," he says, "you can have everything."
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