By Amanda Kim Stairrett
Fort Hood Herald
Soldiers of the 1st Infantry Division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team are experiencing everything actual combat has to offer – in a month.
The brigade deployed in early January to the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., as part of the preparation for an upcoming deployment. Though the brigade has not received official orders, soldiers were told to be ready to go in the spring.
Training at the center provides all the "friction of actual combat," said Lt. Mac McAdoo, a Marine working with the brigade at Fort Irwin.
McAdoo works with Capt. Charles Semenko, commander of Bravo Battery, 1st Battalion, 6th Field Artillery Regiment, helping to coordinate air and ground weaponry. Semenko said that the brigade will try to fit the same number of attacks, casualties and worst-case scenarios they can during the month at the training center as they will see in actual combat.
"Sweat more here, bleed less over there," McAdoo said.
In this final portion of the training center rotation, the soldiers are in what is known as "The Box."
The Box is an area the size of Connecticut, according to information from Fort Irwin public affairs. It's terrain is similar to that of Afghanistan.
The time in The Box is when soldiers go through full-spectrum combat operations and live as if they were in an Afghani combat zone. This follows a period of situational training, where troops go through a series of medical, search and roadside bomb training exercises in platoon-sized elements.
The training is overseen by soldiers stationed at Fort Irwin, who are known as observer controllers. They observe the brigade and give advice on what was good and how to improve. The post also uses Afghan nationals to portray "locals" in Ertebat Shar, a "village" located near Forward Operating Base King, where the brigade's Headquarters and Special Troops Battalion are stationed. The Army refers to training in a crawl, walk or run phase. The situational training was a walk, said Lt. Col. Patrick Daniel, commander of the Special Troops Battalion. The full-spectrum operations are a run phase. Because this is a real-world training scenario, the brigade does experience "casualties." Capt. Tony Sanders led a memorial service for the battalion when a soldier was "killed in action." One of Sanders' jobs is to make sure that soldiers of all faiths have support.
The brigade soldiers wear equipment that is similar to that worn while playing laser tag. Enemy combatants can shoot a soldier, setting off his gear. If a soldier is killed, his unit must go through the processes it would if in combat, said Capt. Andrea Pratt. That includes involving mortuary affairs and requesting another soldier to fill those boots. That "killed" soldier can rejoin his unit once the paperwork it would take to get a replacement is completed.
The soldiers love this kind of training, Daniel said, adding, "this is exactly what they were looking for."
6th Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment
Forward Operating Base Dallas is located in the southeast region of "The Box" at the National Training Center.
It's a 45-minute Humvee drive from the 3rd Brigade Combat Team's Headquarters at Forward Operating Base King.
It's smaller. There's no cell phone reception. The base got shower facilities a day or two ago. The wind was so bad Monday that several tents blew down.
"It's a gated community," joked Lt. Col. James Markert. "Very private."
Markert commands the brigade's 6th Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment. His troopers, nearly 500, occupy Dallas. It is located in the Chah-e District of Afghanistan. Several Afghan villages are nearby, including Chah-e Langford. The squadron's mission is to secure the people and border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Of course, this is all a training scenario and they aren't really in Southwest Asia, but the missions these soldiers carry out are done with total seriousness and realism.
Markert and members of his staff leaned over a large map in the squadron's tactical operations center, or TOC, on Jan. 29, planning an upcoming mission.
"Attention in the TOC," a voice rang out.
It was announced that sniper fire was detected nearby and there were two casualties. Markert clapped his hands and told the soldiers filling the operations center to get outside. The tent quickly cleared.
Markert said this training is the best his troopers will ever get in their lives. He was halfway through a meeting a few days ago with more than 10 officials from the local Afghan government and felt like he was back in Iraq, he said.
"Man, I've done this before," he said he thought to himself. "I could be up in Mosul right now."
The combination of the terrain, weather, living conditions, tactical threats and interaction with the local population makes this an ideal training environment, he said. The lieutenant colonel said he wished he got this kind of training before his first deployment. He deployed to Iraq in 1991 in Operation Desert Storm.
The soldiers are committed to this mission, he said confidently. He has never seen such a low number of sick calls, he said. The soldiers go out on missions and then come in to the medic tent. That means something, he said.
Markert spoke with a gravelly voice. He was sick, but that didn't mean training stopped.
And just like in combat, troops are living on combat outposts. Soldiers live in combat outposts, which put them in local neighborhoods, getting more interaction with the citizens they are trying to help. The squadron has two combat outposts short distances away.
The combat outposts are even more austere than Dallas. There are a few sleep tents, a small stove and a lot more exposure to the elements, Markert said. The outposts suffered from Jan. 28's 60 mph winds.
Markert has been to the National Training Center before, but never with a set up like this. There were no forward operating bases, the soldiers just lived in the desert. They just trained. Now, they operate like they are deployed.
There's a dining facility operated by the squadron's cooks.
The squadron's role in the brigade is to carry out reconnaissance – going out in front of the brigade, finding the enemy and reporting back to the brigade commander so he can make the best decisions on what moves to make.
Because the 3rd Brigade was created at Fort Hood last summer, many of Markert's troopers were new privates. He estimated that 40 percent of the squadron has deployed before.
Joining the squadron at Dallas are several reserve components from California and Texas. They include civil affairs, military police and psychological operations teams.
Capt. Martin Hernandez and Pfc. Josh Parker make up a civil affairs team attached to the squadron. The two are part of the 426th Civil Affairs Battalion from Upland, Calif., and serve as a liaison between the U.S. military and the local government. The team puts out fires, Hernandez said, and tries to incorporate the Afghan police and army so the locals begin to rely on them.
Most civil affairs soldiers are reservists because a high number of specialties are required, Hernandez said. He is a medical officer and is key in providing local villages with essential medical supplies.
When Parker isn't mobilized, he's a meat cutter in San Diego. He recently got a political science degree and hopes to become an officer. He likes his role on the team because even though he's an E-3, he said, he gets to do similar things to his commander.
On a mission
Before a convoy departed Forward Operating Base Dallas for the Afghanistan village of Chah-e Langford, 6th Squadron, 4th Cavalry officials met with a local leader to discuss the event.
The squadron wanted to travel to the village to arrange the delivery of medical supplies, arrange local police training, hand out anti-Taliban information and gather information about a known member of the Taliban operating in that area.
It was a matter of give and take with the leader. He wanted the civil affairs team to bring an offering of medical supplies.
The squadron officials agreed. They wanted to broadcast messages over a loudspeaker, but the leader said it was too early for that. They could, however, create a bulletin board to post information to local citizens.
The officials wanted to begin training with the local police officers, but the leader said that it was again too early and too dangerous for that.
Later that afternoon, the convoy pulled out. Soldiers from the squadron and the brigade's 2nd Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, rolled out with an array of military police, civil affairs and psychological operations soldiers.
One humvee in that convoy was manned by Sgt. Juan Lopez, Spc. Jerry King and Pfc. Brett Bisson – all soldiers in Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 26th Infantry. They're all infantrymen and the humvee, with a .50-caliber gun mounted on top, was their home. They have lived in the gun truck for nearly five days.
During initial situational training exercises, which are a precursor to the full-on operational training, King and Bisson had to climb a mountain to find the source of incoming enemy fire. The climb was straight up, Bisson said, and it was tough. They made it, though, and found a weapons cache in a cave.
They have been in "The Box" for full-on training for a week and a half. On the first day of that training, one of their buddies was "killed in action." To make the training more realistic, KIAs are removed from the scenarios and taken to forward operating bases where they must wait until the proper paperwork is completed to simulate them being replaced in the unit.
As the convoy was preparing to roll out, the buddy approached the vehicle, and King and Bisson cheered. Must be nice, they joked – hot chow day and night and no living in a truck.
The mission to the village wasn't as successful as the soldiers had hoped.
Once there, they found that members of the Taliban had visited the village and killed the police chief and his assistant. The guy they were looking for wasn't there.
After the soldiers visited with the locals, the convoy traveled to one of the combat outposts before going back to Dallas.
Surrounding the city
With nearly every forward operating base and combat outpost taking fire, Jan. 29 was a busy day for 3rd Brigade soldiers.
The brigade was midway through training in "The Box," and the 6th Squadron, 4th Cavalry conducted a mission Jan. 29 that carried into the next day.
The squadron received information from the Afghan National Army that a known al-Qaida leader, Chah-e Langford, was hiding in a nearby village, said Command Sgt. Maj. Gregory Turner, the squadron's senior noncommissioned officer.
A convoy of combined forces moved out late on Jan. 29 to set up a perimeter around the town so the Afghan soldiers could search for the wanted man.
A firefight broke out between the forces and those in the village that night, but the leader was never found. The soldiers surrounded the city with their vehicles and stayed through the night, when reenforcements could arrive to help conduct the search.
The squadron used assets attached to them, including a working-dog team from Fort Polk, La. Sgt. Jovan Harris and Gabbie worked with the squadron during the search mission.
Gabbie is trained to detect explosives and searched several vehicles that attempted to approach the village. The 4-year-old black Lab is trained to sit and stare at the site when she smells the explosives. Harris is a soldier in the 91st Military Police Detachment, 519th Military Police Battalion.
The two have worked together since April 2007, and they will deploy together for the first time in June, Harris said. During the deployment, they will be attached to a unit, much like they were at the National Training Center.
Harris said he has wanted to work with a dog since he became a military police soldier. The five-month-long training is done at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.
A lot of young soldiers ask Harris how they can enter the working-dog program; he said the training is currently only open to military police and engineers.
Harris and Gabbie's presence with the squadron is just one example of several cross-training partnerships the brigade participates in at the National Training Center. This includes work with Reserve and National Guard troops from California and Texas, an active-duty aviation regiment and Marines.
On Jan. 30, there were plans for the Afghan soldiers to move into the village and search, but village leaders were hesitant to let them in.
Two Apache helicopters were called in, and leaders hoped their presence would help convince the villagers, but it was unsuccessful. The soldiers returned to Forward Operating Base Dallas 15 hours after the mission began, without the suspect.
1st Battalion, 6th Field Artillery Regiment
Soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 6th Field Artillery Regiment, were preparing for a fight on Thursday morning.
Humvees, trucks and howitzers were lined up on a dirt road that ran through Forward Operating Base Seattle, and soldiers dressed in full battle rattle were milling around their vehicles.
The battalion's soldiers rolled out that morning as part of a bigger mission with the rest of the brigade's units.
Leaders heard that the largest number of al-Qaida fighters accumulated in the eastern most region of the brigade's area of operations, said Maj. Ed Whitaker, the battalion's executive officer.
Each element of the brigade will provide an aspect to that day's battle. The battalion will provide smoke – cover for the attacking soldiers.
Forward Operating Base Seattle is home to the field artillery battalion and the brigade's 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment – about 1,100 soldiers in all. Some infantry soldiers also occupy a combat outpost located on a mountain outside the base.
The area is so remote, they had to ride in on a helicopter. The field artillery battalion also took over an area outside the fictional city of Lab-e, the Afghanistan city the base is meant to protect.
The base is also home to a forward air refueling point for the 210th Aviation Regiment out of Fort Drum, N.Y.
The regiment brought a fleet of Black Hawk, Chinook and Apache helicopters so the brigade's soldiers know what it's like to work with the aircraft in a combat environment, said 2nd Lt. Marlen Salinas, the officer in charge of the regiment's forward air refueling point at Forward Operating Base Seattle.
The regiment trained with the brigade at Fort Hood and accompanied its soldier to the National Training Center, but they won't deploy together when the time comes, Salinas said.
That interaction at Fort Hood paid off, she said, because it ironed out any issues they might encounter at the training center.
The 3rd Brigade is unique to Fort Hood in that it is a light unit, meaning it doesn't have heavy equipment such as tanks, Paladins and Bradley fighting vehicles. This is especially apparent in the field artillery battalion.
Instead of using the M-109, known as the Paladin, to fire its shells, the soldiers tow their guns behind humvees that also hold each weapon's tracking system.
The M-119 howitzer the battalion uses fires a smaller round than the Paladin – a 105 mm round instead of a 155 mm round, Whitaker said.
That presents some challenges when training at Fort Hood.
When the brigade was activated last year, it was supposed to be located at Fort Knox, Ky. Fort Knox wasn't ready for the thousands of soldiers, so they instead were stationed at Fort Hood.
The Central Texas post is used to accommodating heavy units – Abrams, Paladins, Bradleys. There were no light-unit experts to help with training and maintenance. Fort Hood officials helped bring those people from Fort Sill, Okla., Whitaker said.
The battalion has more than just field artillery soldiers; it has support elements to make sure the weapons fire properly and on target.
Capt. Kevin Shilley commands the Headquarters and Headquarters Battery and is in charge of several survey and weather crews.
The survey soldiers use equipment like that used by roadside survey teams to make sure the howitzers are positioned correctly and fire in a timely manner, said Staff Sgt. Chris Campbell, a chief surveyor.
Campbell is just one of many soldiers looking forward to wrapping up the National Training Center rotation in the next few weeks.
He said he is ready to get home to his wife, Kwanza, and their 12-week-old son, Chris Jr.
"We'd be fine"
If the Army told Col. John Spiszer that his brigade would deploy right now, "We'd be fine."
The colonel is that confident in the 1st Infantry Division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team following a monthlong rotation to the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif.
Two weeks of full-spectrum combat operations wrapped up Friday, and soldiers began moving out of "The Box" to another area called the "Sandbox," where they will turn in equipment and prepare for a return to Fort Hood. That started Saturday and should last a week, brigade officials said.
The combat operations, which were designed to test the soldiers with scenarios they will encounter when they deploy some time this year, came to a head on Thursday night with Operation Mountain Lion.
In the scenario, two towns near the Afghanistan and Pakistan border were taken over by anti-coalition militants and members of the Taliban. The Afghan National Army – played by Fort Irwin soldiers and natives of Afghanistan – asked the brigade to assist them in regaining control of the town and handing them back over to the local government.
The brigade's units – 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment; 2nd Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment; 6th Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment; 1st Battalion, 6th Field Artillery Regiment; 201st Brigade Support Battalion; and Special Troops Battalion – each contributed to the operation.
The squadron's soldiers moved in first to provide reconnaissance while the field artillery battalion provided a smoke cover for the two infantry battalions. The Special Troops Battalion, along with military police soldiers from Fort Polk, moved in to secure the town while the rest of the brigade provided aid to the cities' residents.
A handful of other troops including aviation units from Fort Drum and Fort Stewart, Ga.; National Guard and Reserve units from California and Texas; and Marines assisted in the operation and joined the brigade for its National Training Center rotation.
The brigade has come far since the first soldier was assigned to it on Jan. 31, 2007, and it was activated on April 19 at Fort Hood. The unit didn't even receive rifles until the beginning of June, Spiszer said, so they've come a long way.
Being a new unit presented a set of challenges in that it didn't have standard operating procedures and that base there for the soldiers to fall in on, Spiszer said. The brigade had to be built from nothing. Spiszer said the brigade also didn't have a core group of soldiers with combat experience.
There was a big push in November to get the brigade's companies ready, Spiszer said, because if the companies are OK, the battalion and brigade will be OK.
He feels the brigade is a "functional, soldier brigade in the Army now," the colonel said. The brigade hosted its holiday ball on Nov. 31, and he realized, "We were no longer becoming a brigade – we were a brigade."
The next step is to take what was learned at the National Training Center and modify the training plan for the next four to five months, Spiszer said. The brigade came to the National Training Center to learn more than its soldiers could learn at home, Spiszer said. The resources available at Fort Irwin, from the terrain to observer controllers who graded the brigade's performance to the realistic portrayals by the "locals," can't be replicated at home, Spiszer said.
"NTC is a tough environment to live and work and especially train in," said Maj. Matthew Condry, operations officer for the 1st Battalion, 6th Field Artillery.
This rotation was a huge test for the battalion, he said, and leaders learned so much about its systems and soldiers. Condry said on Friday that he couldn't wait to get back to Fort Hood and insert the lessons they learned into the training.
The soldiers endured freezing temperatures, wind and little to no sleep, and they came out stronger, better trained and mentally tough, Condry said.
"NTC turns up the heat on the unit," he said.
Contact Amanda Kim Stairrett at email@example.com or call (254) 501-7547
Editor's Note: Military reporter Amanda Kim Stairrett embedded with the 1st Infantry Division's Brigade Combat Team from Jan. 27 to Feb. 2 at the National Training Center. The following is a series of reports from Fort Irwin, Calif.