After we navigate a series of elevated planks and rope ladders, a mannequin dressed as an enemy soldier suddenly opens fire from a nearby hut. The Marines return fire laser-tag style with sensor-triggering guns—I'm carrying a rubber rifle—and the bad guy ends his day with a piercing scream.
We pass through a minefield, climb into a tree house, and descend a 10-foot rope into the woodlands. The Marines shimmy down expertly; I drop like a rock. Next is a 20-foot climbing wall, a seemingly simple exercise made challenging by the constant need to focus the goggles between nearby objects (your next handhold) and ones that are far away (a soldier to your rear). Then we're in a desert, where the Marines liberate a mannequin-cum-hostage from a school bus before heading into the final scenario: urban warfare. One by one, we head up a set of stairs, covering one another all the way.
For Lt. Rashad Jamal, who is about to head to flight school, this training is as much about trust as it is about technology. "With the night-vision gear, you don't have peripheral vision, so it's hard to keep track of who's next to you," he says. "We train so that we don't need to look every few seconds—I know you're there, and I can focus on the target."
And though night-vision gear has its limitations, it takes only a second without it to realize the critical advantage it provides, particularly since most U.S. opponents have either low-grade night-vision gear or none at all. Jamal says that's why this training is so critical and is taken so seriously by the troops. "We like to do our fighting at night," he says, "because we know the enemy can't."