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1st Cavalry takes on training center

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Posted: Wednesday, October 1, 2008 12:00 pm | Updated: 5:09 pm, Wed Aug 15, 2012.

By Amanda Kim Stairrett

Fort Hood Herald

With units in California, Louisiana and Iraq, the 1st Cavalry Division is spread across the world.

The 4th Brigade Combat Team left Fort Hood early this summer for a scheduled 15-month deployment to Iraq. The 3rd Brigade Combat Team left for the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., in early September, and the 2nd Brigade Combat Team deployed to the Joint Readiness Training Center shortly after.

Flights of 1st Brigade Combat Team soldiers began leaving Fort Hood for NTC this week and everyone is expected to be in California by Monday, said Cpl. Shejal Pulivarti, brigade spokeswoman.

The Defense Department announced in late May that the 3rd Brigade could deploy this fall “to replace troops scheduled to come home by the year’s end.” Officials announced in June that the 1st and 2nd Brigades are expected to deploy to Iraq between January and March 2009. This will be each of the brigades’ third deployments.

The training centers prepare units for combat and is an opportunity for brigades to train at a collective level. These rotations are the last major training events before the brigades deploy.

It also gives soldiers a more real-world experience and brigade commanders can work their staffs and support units in that environment, said Lt. Col. Philip Smith, 1st Cavalry spokesman.

Elements from the division’s 1st Air Cavalry Brigade are set to accompany each brigade during their training center rotations.

The 3rd Brigade’s stay at the National Training Center began with a reception, staging, onward movement and integration period in which soldiers met with observer/controllers who oversee and grade their performance during the training. The “O/Cs” met with units and tell them their strengths and weaknesses so the soldiers are better prepared for what they may face in combat.

The units then move out to “The Box,” and conduct things like combat patrols, route clearance and various live-fire exercises – all essential skills these men and women will use when they deploy.

Next up are full-spectrum operations in which units operate as if they were in combat – in 3rd Brigade’s case, Iraq, Maj. Ramona L.B. Bellard, brigade spokeswoman, said on Sept. 18.

Everything that happens after Sept. 19 until it’s time to go back to Fort Hood will be as if it were actually happening in Iraq and “we have to react to it – the game is on,” Bellard said.

“Training is going very, very well. ... People I’ve spoken to who have been here in the past can not believe how (the National Training Center) has evolved – the villages are so realistic and the training here is so realistic that it is easy to forget that we are still in America,” Bellard said.

“The brigade commander’s (Col. Gary Volesky) main objective for the unit coming to NTC was that we get better everyday and don’t quit – and we’ve done that.”

Full-spectrum operations ended Thursday and all the brigade’s soldiers are expected to return to Fort Hood by Monday, Bellard added.

THE BLACK JACK BRIGADE

JRTC is getting the 2nd Brigade prepared for the first 30 days of what it may encounter in Iraq.

It’s in those first 30 days that units struggle, said Lt. Col. Matt Hackathorn, an O/C at the training center. To make sure it’s ready, the brigade is bombarded with scenarios during a portion of training called “force on force.”

What happens in three days of force on force may happen in 30 days in Iraq.

“Stressing those systems” shows leaders and soldiers where they need work, Hackathorn said on Sept. 22.

The training replicates the right conditions, whether they are lethal or non-lethal, and replicates a population with which the soldiers may have to deal with, said Command Sgt. Maj. James Daniels, the 4th Squadron, 9th Cavalry Regiment’s senior noncommissioned officer.

It’s important that soldiers get situational awareness of things like indirect fire, small-arms fire, roadside bombs and suicide bombers, he said.

The squadron occupied Forward Operating Base Spirit with the 3rd Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery Regiment at JRTC. The brigade headquarters and support battalion resided at Forward Operating Base Sword.

The squadron’s goal during this training scenario was to get the enemy out of the area, secure the population, enable the local government and promote economic prosperity, said Capt. Ted Lee Cha, squadron spokesman.

If that sounds familiar, it’s probably because that’s exactly what the United States and coalition forces are trying to do in Iraq. What better way for units to carry out those missions than to have them practice at home?

The squadron’s mission, when it deploys, will be to oversee the Iraqi army and police in the hope it will eventually take the lead, Daniels said.

This will be Daniels’ third deployment to Iraq during his 26 years in the Army. The first was with the 4th Infantry Division in Operation Iraqi Freedom I and the second was as the squadron’s senior noncommissioned officer during its last rotation. The squadron is taking on a different mission than last time, which was securing the International Zones.

Daniels estimated that 75 to 80 percent of the squadron’s soldiers are combat veterans.

Observer/controllers like Hackathorn also are combat veterans who bring their experience to the training event to coach, teach and mentor the brigade. They observe soldiers’ and leaders’ actions and reactions and provide input, Hackathorn said. If someone gets stuck, they can pick the O/Cs’ brains.

The training is “very hands on” in an effort to make the units better, Hackathorn added.

Rotations to training centers are vital because units come back from a deployment and have to refit themselves, Hackathorn said. New people come into the unit and new leaders take over and they all must get back into that readying-for-combat mode.

“We try to give them a well-rounded training experience,” Hackathorn said.

Putting soldiers through training like this is important because it builds their confidence, Daniels said. That ultimately ensures they are safe in an environment where one never knows what to expect.

JRTC MISSIONS

A Black Hawk helicopter rose from the ground late Thursday afternoon, sending a tidal wave of fine dust through the air and ending force-on-force operations for the 4th Squadron, 9th Cavalry.

The 2nd Brigade unit’s force-on-force portion of its Joint Readiness Training Center rotation lasted about a week, and bombarded soldiers with a variety of scenarios they may encounter while deployed to Iraq.

Thursday’s mission unfolded after Apache Troop, which was located at Joint Combat Outpost Hammer, uncovered a weapons cache. Gun trucks from the squadron’s Forward Operating Base Spirit were called in to help, and a firefight with the enemy ensued.

Soldiers, Bradley fighting vehicles and tanks lined the berm that circled the outpost. A handful of the squadron’s soldiers were “injured” during the fight.

Before force-on-force operations began, each soldier was given a casualty card in a small manila envelope. Sealed inside were details of what would happen to that soldier if he were hit.

All soldiers wear Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System, or MILES, gear. It is like a sophisticated laser-tag system, and would beep if a soldier was “hit” by the enemy. If that happened, medics treated the victims according to what was on their casualty cards. Injuries ranged from death by gunshot to loss of hearing.

Soldiers then loaded the wounded onto a Black Hawk that touched down near the end of the battle.

Thursday’s mission was good experience for the soldiers – especially the new ones who haven’t seen combat, said Staff Sgt. Rogelio Mercado, a 26-year-old native of Orange County, Calif.

Though Fort Polk’s woody terrain was a bit different from Iraq, the fight was “pretty realistic” and the big explosives were “really good training experience.”

Mercado led a gun truck in the battle, which was manned by Spcs. Ian Perkins, Christopher Jones and David Ohms. All three are in their 20s and all three deployed with the squadron during its last rotation to Iraq.

Ohms has deployed to JRTC, the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., and to Iraq for 15 months – “and that’s only in the last three years,” he said.

Ohms, who was stop-lossed, estimated he hasn’t been home more than a few days in the last five months because of a rigorous training schedule.

Ohms joined the Army because he couldn’t decide what he wanted to do with his life. He trained to be a firefighter, but it’s tough to get a job doing that, he said, though some departments tend to give extra points for military service.

After the Army, the 26-year-old plans on getting a degree in network engineering.

Ohms has only served in the squadron. Fort Hood was his first duty station and it would be his only duty station, he said Wednesday night while at the wheel of a Humvee.

A night mission on Sept. 24 involved an air assault into a village, where troops captured a “high-value individual.”

This mission was the first time a brigade unit incorporated American soldiers and Special Forces, Iraqi special forces and the Iraqi army in a mission, said Lt. Col. Thomas A. Shoffner.

American forces in the attack included the squadron’s Charlie Troop and the 1st Air Cavalry Brigade’s 3rd Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment and 4th Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment. Elements of both battalions accompanied the 2nd Brigade to JRTC.

The mission – the squadron’s largest – took 72 hours to plan and involved 80 soldiers, Shoffner said. Because of the coordination among several units, the air assault mission was the most complicated one carried out at that level at JRTC, Shoffner said.

“We may certainly do that as one of our options,” he said of using the air assault tactic in Iraq. Wednesday’s and Thursday’s missions were the squadron’s largest, and Shoffner said it “hasn’t fought this hard in two years.”

All of the planning and execution are getting the squadron ready for a “totally different mission set,” the lieutenant colonel said. The troops provided security for the Green Zone and several neighborhoods in Baghdad, including Haifa Street, during its last rotation. Shoffner took command of the squadron on April 8.

The upcoming deployment will be different because the squadron will take more of a mission-supporting role, providing assistance to the Iraqi army and police when needed. Shoffner called it a “follow and support mission.”

JRTC helped prepare the squadron for that interaction by employing nearly 40 role-playing Iraqi forces who had to be incorporated into the planning and execution of missions, Shoffner said.

The soldiers are improving each day, he said amid gunfire at Thursday’s battlesite.

“I’m extremely proud to be their squadron commander and lead them into battle,” Shoffner said.

The potential for great things is clearly here, Shoffner said Friday.

The squadron started packing on Thursday night for the return home to Fort Hood. All the squadron’s soldiers are expected to be back at Fort Hood by the second week of October, Shoffner said.

On Friday, units began two days of after-action reviews, in which the training center’s observer/controllers shared what they observed in the last few weeks. After-action reviews target units’ strengths and weaknesses, and where the soldiers and leaders need to improve. That is where the true learning starts, Shoffner said.

Staff synchronization is at the top of the pyramid; Shoffner believed the foundation was laid for that to occur. Leaders will now go back to Fort Hood and revise their standard operating procedures.

The squadron’s strength lies in its extremely talented individuals, Shoffner said. The soldiers met his high expectations and showed a willingness to get into the fight.

Contact Amanda Kim Stairrett at astair@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7547.

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