I'm in a long, dark tunnel. My view is a perfect circle-narrow, green and grainy. I can see and feel the ridges lining it. But if I lift the night-vision goggles from my eyes, it's total blackness. A big, deep nothing. Far ahead, a pair of boots moves steadily away.
I press on, making it to the end of the tube. It gets brighter, but I can't discern what I'm emerging into. Is that a floor ahead or a pit? Can I stand up? The goggles cut off depth perception and peripheral vision, so I move my head in wide arcs, clawing my way past the end of the pipe. Suddenly a hand materializes in front of me. I grab it, and 25-year-old Sgt. Shane Levings pulls me to my feet and points me to the next obstacle: a feeble-looking chain ladder that heads straight into . . . well, what exactly?
That's the point: We don't know what's next. But the four young Marines leading me through the Night Integrated Training Environment (Nite) at the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory in Quantico, Virginia, must learn to figure it out. They're training for the Marine Corps' specialty: night combat in environments peppered with alarmed civilians, explosive booby traps and enemy soldiers—not unlike what's facing their fellow Marines in Iraq at this very moment. And at the Nite, they get it all. This 10,000-square-foot facility, the only complex of its kind operated by the U.S. military, features a sequence of rooms, often rigged with simulated machine-gun-firing combatants, that mimic deserts, jungles, woodlands and dense urban terrain. Training exercises are held day or night, in any weather, with any variable the Marines choose. Right now an illegal drug lab, a radio hut, a school bus, a treehouse, dry riverbeds, wire fences, log piles and a number of other obstacles are arranged in a course that would prove challenging even in broad daylight.