Words & Photos: Jonathan Higgs of Airsoftology.com and Keli Pilkington of KDog Action Photography
I ’m pretty sure that most airsofters keep a private mental list of “dream” places they would like to play: abandoned hotels, military urban combat training facilities, derelict factories, or possibly an abandoned oil rig in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico (ok, that one is a stretch, but you have to admit that it would be a ton of fun). Some of these locations are actually attainable, and some are just reserved for daydreaming while suffering through a long lecture at school or long meeting at work. But even with my exhaustive library of exotic “wish” AOs, never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I’d have the opportunity to soak up a weekend of MilSim at a decommissioned nuclear fuels processing plant. Yep, you read that right: A real-life nuclear facility! Complete with two-foot-thick blast doors, ancient control rooms and miles of rusty piping.
But, there I was on a chilly Friday evening, pulling into the main gate at GTI’s Joint Operations Center in Barnwell, South Carolina, at the very location that I once thought an impossible location for an airsoft event. With my expectations already exceeded and my mind completely blown, I knew that I had finally arrived at American MilSim’s Operation: Faded Giant 2.
THE AO (AREA OF OPERATIONS)
The Government Training Institute’s Joint Operations Center (JOC) is possibly the most unique urban training center anywhere in the US. While most MOUT facilities boast a sprawling city full of concrete buildings, roads and tunnels, GTI has taken the opposite approach by acquiring a decommissioned nuclear facility to use as a one-of-a-kind CQB battleground. The facility is comprised of a large central building that housed the primary fuel processing, as well as a number of single-use external buildings surrounding it. As a player moving for the first time into any of the dozens of out-buildings, you never knew what you were going to face; building floor plans ranged wildly from large open generator rooms, to steel and pipe-filled cooling units, to clusters of compact small offices. With over 200,000 square feet of indoor play area across dozens of buildings, there was no shortage of rooms to clear and corners to hide in. And there was always something new and cool to see around the next bend. Externally, the site proved as challenging as it did internally. With this portion of South Carolina being extremely flat, the geography of the location contributed greatly to the strategy around the outdoor game play. The only exception to this was the large center building and a few smaller structures that housed support equipment that sat on a man-made plateau built 20 or so feet above the surrounding area. This meant that majority of the site was at “ground level” for the surrounding terrain, while the central objectives required an uphill battle to take. On top of that, most buildings had at least 100 feet of open ground between it and the next closest one, so it required at least a squad, if not a platoon, of players to make an advance on a structure.
To top it all off, both team’s FOBs (Forward Operating Bases/Respawns) were at the lower elevation level and located on opposite corners of the base, thus making a trip back to respawn a daunting task at times. Suffice to say, you could see that the guys at American MilSim picked a fantastic AO that allowed for dynamic battles both indoors and out…but the real test is how it held up when the BBs started flying on Saturday morning.
American MilSim follows a pretty standard ruleset when it comes to their games, so if you are a veteran of any MilSim events you’ll be right at home…with a few exceptions. For added immersion, the Medic system has been retooled for their style of play. Starting in 2013, they have been requiring players to have their own “Med Kit” on their vest for each game. Inside the Med Kit, you are required to carry three Ace-style bandages for your personal use. If hit, the squad medic will come over and use one of your bandages to heal you back in. This can occur up to three times before you have to bleed out (stay in place dead for five minutes) and are forced to return to your FOB to rejoin the game. To mix it up a bit, and to keep the game flowing, each team was given a mobile FOB in addition to their main static FOB. The mobile FOB was designated by a popup tent with your side’s flag, CoST or UFS, and provided a secondary respawn location that could be placed extremely close to the contested areas. This component added strategy to the leadership for each team, and rewarded those team leaders that stayed on top of what their team was doing at the moment.
The dual FOB setup was a boost, since AMS events only allow reloading of your magazines at these locations. While on the battlefield, you can only shoot what you have in your midcaps, and reloads are strictly prohibited. To further keep the indoor game from becoming a bottleneck, if you are hit indoors you have to have all three bandages applied to respawn back into play. This essentially gives you only one extra life if battling indoors, and as a result, keeps you on your toes while roaming the hallways or traversing a catwalk. Additionally, while indoors you must keep all of your weapons on semi-auto only. Outdoors, full auto was fully approved, but inside it was strictly off limits. Sorry, no heavy trigger fingers allowed at this site…but using semi-auto keeps people from being overshot, and that’s a good safety rule when working in close quarters. And because of the close quarters, AMS did not have a MED rule in play for standard rifles and pistols indoors. A MED is a Minimum Engagement Distance, or in layman’s terms, how close you can be to another player and engage them with your airsoft gun. While some people initially thought this would lead to extremely close shots and issues on the field, it actually did the opposite. By removing the MED issue, players were more careful around corners and hallways. Plus the normal “bang out” and “parlay” issues that I’ve seen at other events were non-existent at Faded Giant.
Overall I thought it was a good call on AMS to go this direction on their rules for this CQB heavy AO, and the result was a solid game that flowed well and was issue-free.
From the start of the event on Saturday morning, I knew it was going to be an exciting weekend of airsoft battles. Since I have only ever been embedded with the Coalition of Sovereign Territories (CoST ) team during the American MilSim games, I have learned to look for green uniforms as friendlies. But in all AMS events, there is an ongoing battle between CoST and UFS (United Federal States – tan uniforms), with the outcome deciding how the map lines are redrawn for the next game in the series. As I lined up with my green comrades, we all waited anxiously for the go signal. Unfortunately we were in UFS territory, so the tan side had the opportunity to start inside of the buildings while we were forced to begin at our FOB far on the north side of the AO. The waiting was almost unbearable; we were all chomping at the bit to make the initial assault. Seconds seemed like minutes…and then we heard the call. Suddenly a mass of green, with weapons held at the ready, darted off in the 200-yard sprint toward the central building. The first of us had hit the 20 foot embankment and started the climb on the slippery pine needle-laden slope as we started taking fire. Within seconds there were two dozen UFS forces spanning the top of the hill, raining plastic down on us and our comrades. As we all ducked behind the largest pines we could find, we returned fire so our remaining forces could catch up. Trying to think small thoughts while firing uphill, we kept their attention long enough to allow a flanking squad to move to crest the top and make quick work of the bulk of the defending tan team. After cleaning up the last of the enemy and bandaging our wounded, we crested the hill and regrouped to quickly prepare our breach on the main building. My platoon hit all available entrances on our side of the main building, while another made their way to a connected outbuilding to clear it for our first objective. As we burst through the door and down the labyrinth of halls, we only encountered light resistance at first. All of that changed when we arrived at the first stairwell.
From the moment we crossed the threshold, we started taking simultaneous fire from a far doorway and three floors above. A friendly squad broke away from our group in search for another stairwell to ascend and hopefully outflank the opponents above, and my squad continued pushing across the landing while trading shots with the tan squad across from us. We began taking heavy casualties in the dark stairwell, and the red “dead lights” began popping on one by one, forcing our medic to go to work placing multiple bandages on the injured to get them back into play. After what seemed like an eternity things were looking bleak. We had picked off most of the enemy across from us, but the fire from above was taking out any of my squad that dared make a run for the far door. We had almost given up when we heard a commotion a few floors up, followed by the echo of various voices calling “Hit!” The other squad had finally made the push and outflanked the UFS team that was above us. We were saved…for the moment. We had only cleared our way into a fraction of the main facility, and we had many more rooms and battles like this, before we could get to our objective across the building and six floors above us. All we could do was take stock, regroup and push on. It was battles like this that continued throughout the day. Whether we were inside or out, there was always a clear objective to complete, and plenty of opponents to shoot. AMS did a solid job of balancing the game; as soon as we took a room or building, it seemed that the opposing force was there to claim it back as theirs. The flow was smooth and it didn’t feel orchestrated or forced. Overall the game play was spot on, and by lunch my squad mates and I already had dozens of war stories to share over our cans of cold ravioli and tepid MREs. When lunch was over it was time for the DAM.
DIRECT ACTION MISSION (DAM)
American MilSim has come to be known for their Direct Action Missions since introducing them to the MilSim world in 2012. A DAM is a scripted, squad-based mission that challenges you and your team in ways you never had before. The dedicated opponents fall dead instead of using deadrags, making body searches (and double taps) critical, and even supposed allies have been known to draw a pistol and fire upon your team in a moment of panic.
This wasn’t my first DAM, so I knew to be prepared for anything. So, with zip ties on my side and a bolt cutter in my back pouch (Zero Dark Thirtystyle), we climbed three escape ladders to the roof to start the mission. Now I’m not going to go into too much detail here, since a retelling of the DAM alone would take upwards of eight pages in this magazine (and subsequently give my editor a heart attack), but I will hit the highlights in a simple checklist format:
• A smoked filled alarmed room that rendered all communication useless – Check
• A tripwire Claymore that I found the hard way– Check (MEDIC!)
• Bomb defusal under pressure (and under fire)– Check
• Cutting padlocks off doors and zip-tying bad guys – Check
• A VIP that continued to bleed out theatrical blood at every stop– Check
• Trapdoors and hidden passages that the bad guys knew about – Check (MEDIC again!)
And all of that was in the first few minutes of breaching the door. The DAM missions really teach you about teamwork, and the importance of moving slowly and carefully through an unknown hostile environment. They are designed to be challenging for the best of squads, and aren’t just set up as a glorified Call of Duty mission as it may seem on the surface. The guys at American MilSim take the time to debrief you and your squad, and the role players add critical input on what you did right, and where you can improve. If you and your team are serious about building better situational awareness skills and working together to overcome obstacles in a MilSim environment, the DAM is the true testing ground for your squad’s ability, as it was for ours. As we finished the mission by popping smoke on the rooftop, with bomb and HVT in hand, my teammates and I were physically and mentally drained. You could see the look of relieved exhaustion in our eyes, but in a good way. We knew we had been tested, and while we made our share of missteps along the way, we emerged with the package in hand. And that was a good feeling. All that was left was for us to get off this roof and head down to the debriefing, where we learned what to train harder at for next year’s DAM.
After some much needed R&R and a bit of refueling from dinner, a small handful of us grouped up and headed out for a turn at the night mission around 1AM. With a much smaller set of players jumping into the night mission, especially at this late hour, the game play was restricted to the main building and surrounding areas only. The six of us were in the fortunate position to have access to current generation night vision, and most of us had the benefit of some training and/or experience using them, so we had a distinct advantage in the now-darkened hallways of the facility. Night vision mounted firmly on our helmets, we headed into the bowels of the building. Our objective: Find the fuel rods, protect them throughout the night and extract them to your FOB at sunrise. The facility is a different beast at night, and with only a handful of players wandering around, every creak of a door or groan of the aging build could be an enemy waiting in the shadows to strike. But, with the power of night vision on our side it was a massive game changer. Darkened rooms became brightly-lit green ones, and shadows gave way to players attempting to hide from a sound they could barely make out. As we crept our way through, carefully picking our steps as to not make noise, we hit small pockets of resistance. Most of the groups were a few enemies armed with flashlights and rifles, and we were able to deal with quickly…thanks to the advantage our NVGs and IR lasers gave us. However we quickly found that weren’t the only hunters in the building equipped with the technology, and we were soon locked in a 30-minute firefight with a similar squad protecting the last of the fuel rods.
With patience and an amazing medic on our side, we were finally able to take out the last of the opposition and claim the remaining fuel rod as ours. But with daybreak hours away and our energy levels spent from a hard day of playing, we tucked it away in a safe corner for another friendly squad to extract in the morning. As we headed off to bed for some much needed few hours of sleep, we all agreed that we had an amazingly fun day of airsoft, and one that will be remembered for years to come.
The weekend closed out on Sunday morning with a few more hours of play, and a handful of objectives to complete to decide the victor. The score was near deadlocked, and every point counted at this moment. After some tough battles across the entire facility, the green team (CoST) was able to squeak out a small victory thereby claiming another state on the map for the resistance. It was a close battle, and as the final shots were fired, both teams shook hands and shared stories as they made their way back to the parking lot in preparation for the closing ceremonies. Like all American MilSim events, they are no strangers to the top tier sponsors. With raffle giveaways from great companies like Elite Force, HSGI, Airsoft GI and LBX Tactical just to name a few, there were more than a couple happy players that walked away with some amazing gear and airsoft guns. Even without the raffle and giveaways, the game itself was more than enough to satisfy even the most discerning airsofter, and as people packed their belongings and began the trek back to their homes across the US and Canada, you could see in their eyes that the game was more than worth the trip.
American MilSim really stepped up their game for Operation: Faded Giant 2. Building on their past experiences here, you could really tell that their prior experience with this AO really showed in planning and execution. The attention to detail and balance of game play was evident. No one team felt overpowering throughout the event, and there was no shortage of challenges to overcome as a player. The flow was smooth and fun and the team leadership knew what had to be done to keep everyone engaged at a complex and unique CQB facility. If you have been looking for a mature, well-oiled CQB MilSim event that balances fun and challenging objectives, then you absolutely need to add Operation: Faded Giant 3 next year to your event list…and if you do, make sure to look for me; I’ll be there for sure!