By Staff Sgt. Jon Cupp

1st Cavalry Division public affairs

CAMP TAJI, Iraq – For Army field artillery men, commonly referred to as ‘red legs,’ a term adopted during the Civil War when artillery men wore red stripes down the sides of their uniform pant legs, it has been said that there can be few greater accolades than being named “top gun.”

The red legs in M109A6 Paladin howitzer section crews from Alpha and Bravo Batteries of the 1st Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery Regiment put their game faces on for their most recent shot at that title during a lengthy “Top Gun” competition last month.

The “Top Gun” competition recognizes the best Paladin crew based on their knowledge and mastery of their skills on the Paladin through a series of scored events that are evaluated by field artillery senior noncommissioned officers. The events, some of which are timed, include tasks based on basic knowledge and operation of the Paladin.

“This has been a tradition for a long time in field artillery and it’s one of the most significant things we do to build confidence among sections for cohesion and team building,” said Top Gun evaluator Sgt. 1st Class Jamie Crankfield, a battalion master gunner for the regiment. “It gives them something to look forward to and it’s a real morale booster to come out top gun.”

“The normal competition usually lasts a full two weeks at Fort Hood but it’s been abbreviated in country to about a week because our guys are doing real fire missions in support of combat operations,” said Master Sgt. James Alesick, a Dragon operations sergeant who also served as an evaluator during the event. “But it’s all about bragging rights.”

Along with boosting morale and building team cohesion, the event offered the troops the chance to recertify themselves on the Paladins as well as a chance to hone their skills and receive refresher training, according to Crankfield.

Regardless of who would come out on top in the competition, Command Sgt. Maj. Mike Giles, the Dragons’ senior noncommissioned officer, said he has been extremely proud of the Paladin section crews and their successes in firing more than 6,000 rounds in support of combat operations for two brigades in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom Rotation 06-08.

As most field artillery troopers in Iraq are doing roles that were once normally reserved only for infantrymen to include foot patrols, Giles said the section crews get a rare opportunity to actually do the jobs they enlisted as field artillerymen to do.

“It’s really important to me, because a lot of these kids normally wouldn’t get to shoot a howitzer and they won’t get the opportunity when they get back to the states,” Giles said. “Many of the guys we have who were in Iraq last time didn’t get to shoot Paladins because they were on patrols, at traffic control points, doing guard tower base defense and all that kind of stuff.”

“Since we’ve been here, they’ve gone from being OK to being pretty damn good, and both of these batteries have had a chance to shoot in combat and have equal time on the guns so now it’s time to see who’s the best of the best,” Giles said at the start of the competition.

The phases of top gun

The competition was broken down into four phases. The first phase began each morning with the sections, which are made up of usually four members, taking a written exam that tested their knowledge of the Paladin and its operation to include such topics as firing, driving and maintenance. Each section member took the test individually with the score for the exam being based off of the section’s average.

Only one crew section competed each day of the competition in a team effort to prove their worth as a Paladin crew and the evaluator’s said they could usually tell who was going to do well in the early phases of the competition.

“With one section going through each day, it gives us the ability to give our full attention to that section and allows us to give them a thorough and proper evaluation,” Alesick said. “The most experienced gun chief knows how to use his crew, and is already prepared for each step most of the time and thinking ahead as to how he’s going to tackle each event.”

“Those are the guys who usually come out on top most of the time, they have a plan and a motivated section,” Alesick said.

The other phases involved such events as disassembling and assembling of the breech mechanism on the Paladin; disassembly and reassembly of the .50-caliber machine gun; preparing the Paladin for movement and occupation of a firing area; a dry fire mission and an emergency mission.

Some of the events involved the crews doing such things as manually plotting points on a map and driving the Paladin to four different checkpoints.

“Many of these guys haven’t done a land navigation course since training at the Joint Readiness Training Center in Fort Polk, La., so this can be a little challenging,” Alesick said during the competition, emphasizing that the Paladin crews can’t always count on their computers. “It’s important that they can do this manually because you never know when your digital (equipment) may crash. That applies to firing the weapon too, they have to be proficient in doing it both digitally and manually.”

When the firing and movement events ended, phase four which was designed as a morale booster was a little bit of a physical challenge for the crews, according to Crankfield, explaining that the four-man crews must run 100 meters in what is known as the “red legs relay” — to pick up five 103-pound, 155 millimeter artillery rounds. Then they have to run the rounds, without dropping them, back to the Paladin where they must strap the rounds down inside the howitzer—all within two minutes.

Crankfield explained that it can be very hard for a four-man crew to get all five rounds at one time without having to make a second trip as well as completing the event in the two minutes allotted.

A final event involved the crew’s attempts to throw five expended primers, which look similar to spent rifle shells, into a bucket that has been placed about 10 meters from them.

“The most we’ve seen one person get in the bucket so far is three,” Alesick said.

The crews said they enjoyed the competition.

“I feel outstanding, it’s a wonderful thing because it’s fun for the crews to be able to do this,” said Staff Sgt. Justin Stevenson, a section crew chief from Alpha Battery, after his crew completed the red legs relay. “We accomplished everything we trained to do so I feel really good about that.”

“This is my first time to compete in top gun as a section chief, so the next time I do this I’ll know where to hone my skills so I’ll know what to improve upon,” he added.

There can be only one

After nearly a week since the competition ended, the waiting was over and the top overall section was announced a day prior to an Oct. 23 ceremony in which the winners were bestowed the Top Gun title along with Army Achievement Medals, a Paladin muzzle cover with the words “Top Gun” embroidered on it and a Top Gun streamer for their battery’s guidon.

For Staff Sgt. William Cannon, a section crew chief for Alpha Battery’s 2nd platoon, all the glory for the win goes to his soldiers.

“I’m proud of these guys, they’ve trained hard, putting in long hours and it was good to have the training pay off and for us to come out on top,” Cannon said. “It’s also been a valuable experience for them as they weren’t able to do the training until they got out here to prepare for Top Gun.”

Crankfield said there was definitely something special about Cannon’s crew that put them above all the other crews competing during Top Gun week.

“Overall, their operations and their fire missions were great. You could tell that the chief was dedicated to his training program, you could see how his guys had confidence in themselves,” Crankfield said. “They were the first team to finish the red legs relay within the two minutes and you could see how well the team had planned out their strategy to carry all five rounds down to the Paladin at one time.”

“You could tell how much they wanted it when you saw the physical fitness, endurance and discipline of the section as they put it all on the line to win,” he said.

Out of a possible 565 points, Cannon’s crew scored 500 to take the win.

Soldiers in Cannon’s section said the hard work to take the spot as their battalion’s Top Gun was well worth it.

“I feel good and as though we pulled together as a team from the start,” said Pfc. Jeremy Hunker, a field artilleryman. “There were obviously a few minor gripes in the beginning with all the late nights training but we came through the whole competition with no regrets.”

“It’s great anytime you can participate in something like this, because we’re getting to do the job we actually enlisted to do as field artillerymen,” Sgt. Jason Casebier said. “So instead of being gate guards somewhere, we’re actually getting to send rounds down range.”

Leadership in both the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division and the regiment recognized the efforts of the Paladin crews during Top Gun as well as their performance over the past year.

“Every time the enemy is on the business end of the Paladin they know they’re in trouble and you have been firing in support of the Iraqi people,” said Col. Paul E. Funk II, brigade commander. “(When you fire) the enemy knows we are here and we mean business. We are not going to let up on the enemy, taking away something from them everyday.”

“You have taken away the enemy’s ability to do any type of concerted fires effort, and this battalion leads all others (in the number of rounds fired this rotation)—and that’s amazing. Being top gun is a pretty damn good thing, be proud of yourselves and finish strong,” Funk said, encouraging his troops to keep their motivation and situational awareness high, continuing their hard work while nearing the end of their deployment.

Lt. Col. Martin Clausen, regimental commander, echoed many of Funk’s sentiments.

“We saw a lot of motivation and a lot of focus and you have done a tremendous job,” said Clausen in praise of his troopers.

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