FORT IRWIN, Calif. — A rotation at the National Training Center is traditionally more difficult than actual combat, said Maj. Matt Siebert, operations officer for 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, Thursday evening from the brigade’s tactical operations center at the National Training Center.
It was the second to last night of the unit’s two-week exercise in the center’s 1,200-square-mile training grounds known as “the box,” and the brigade had suffered more than 230 simulated casualties in one day.
“If it’s tougher here than it is out there, then we’re ready for combat,” Siebert said.
About 5,000 soldiers from the “Greywolf” Brigade and its attached assets left for Fort Irwin in mid-January for the 30-day rotation training in a doctrine the Army calls “decisive action.” About 14 days are spent in the box, where the unit must succeed in a decisive-action scenario. The rotation has been conducted fewer than five times at the center, and Greywolf is the first Fort Hood unit to train in it.
“We use the decisive-action training environment to bring together offensive, defensive and stability operations ... to get rapid dominance and conclusion to conflict,” said National Training Center and Fort Irwin Command Sgt. Maj. Lance Lehr. “(Decisive action) is definitely harder, but it takes the lessons that we’ve learned over the last 10 to 12 years in the (counterinsurgency) environment and the things that we have not been doing as much — offensive and defensive combined arms maneuvers — and adds that in,” Lehr said.
Col. David Lesperance, commander of the Greywolf brigade, said “simultaneity” is the key to success in decisive-action warfare. While one part of the brigade is securing a village and conducting stability operations, another may receive orders to roll out on a mission against mechanized forces.
“It’s the continuous nature of operations that makes this exciting,” Lesperance said.
He said the brigade did a great job with the challenges presented to it, “because of the actions of individual soldiers.”
Siebert said combat is inherently confusing, but the training was teaching Greywolf soldiers to react, adapt and overcome in rapidly changing situations.
“The pressure is far higher here on this rotation in the eyes of more experienced folks,” he said.
Experiencing challenges and setbacks during the rotation is normal, said Lt. Col. JR Deimel, senior brigade staff trainer at the training center. “Every unit that comes here struggles at something,” he said. “They come here to get better and hone their skills. We grow them as a unit and we grow them individually.”
Despite any obstacles, Deimel said Greywolf was handling itself well.
“This replicates a more austere environment,” he said. “However, this unit is handling the challenges well and growing every day.”
Aside from the space and ability to maneuver all the brigade’s assets at once, the training center also provides two unique aspects to training soldiers that makes the war games that much more realistic — an enemy force and civilian role players.
These role players can represent anyone from a village mayor, police chief, United Nations or State Department representative or a terrorist.
Greywolf’s 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment secured a village during one day of the scenario and then interacted with the locals as part of stability operations.
“To have the role players is amazing,” said Staff Sgt. Bud Francis, a dismounted squad leader for the battalion’s Bravo Company. “It’s important seeing that everyone in the city isn’t a bad guy.”
Lt. Col. Michael Payne, commander of Greywolf’s 3rd Brigade Special Troops Battalion was tasked with meeting with village leaders as part of the wide-area security mission to neutralize potential threats. Known in the Army as key leader engagements, interacting with the local populace is imperative to the counterinsurgency training.
“We have to train how to integrate all that as part of the wide-area security mission, while still pushing combat power forward,” Payne said. “Simultaneously, while providing security in the area, we negotiate with mayors, police chiefs, city councils and leaders to understand why we are here as well as expectations management as far as what assistance we can provide.”
This partnership created, he said, can stifle potential criminal elements from rising up in the city.
“The human element has to be part of the battle now,” Payne said. “The enemy no longer is just a uniformed enemy. It could be a local citizen upset about what U.S. forces are doing in the city.”
‘Work under stress’
During their time in the box, soldiers and their vehicles, role players and the opposition force are outfitted with a laser tag-type system, as well as a sensor on weapons that sends the laser out when a blank round is fired. The gear will beep to let the soldier know if they have been hit.
This not only trains units to operate after losing members and assets during battle, but also how to use the systems to get replacements.
“It teaches us to work under stress,” said 2nd Lt. Christine Sloan, an assistant in the brigade’s administration section. “Besides learning to communicate and the casualty process, it’s giving us a chance to get to know the soldiers in the brigade.”
It wasn’t just casualty replacement systems that were put to the test. Every system within the brigade was strained and stressed.
Behind the tanks, the Bradley Fighting Vehicles and the front lines of the fighting, soldiers work around the clock to sustain the battle.
And while the fighting is simulated, the sustainment element often was not. Soldiers out here really needed food and water, and they actually got injured, so Greywolf’s sustainers operated just as they would in combat.
Capt. Michael Lada, the acting brigade surgeon, said operating in this training environment and operating downrange were exactly the same.
“The things we’re given for role-play are insignificant to the real-world stuff we are doing,” he said.
About 80 percent of the illnesses and injuries he saw were real-world.
Soldiers got sick and needed medical treatment. Crush injuries also were common, because of working with so much heavy equipment.
Lada also was able to talk to the observer-controllers at the training center to let them know what medical emergencies he would like his team to see. So, if he would like them to see a cardiac patient, and a real incident didn’t occur, one would be simulated.
“We don’t get the opportunity to do training like this very often at all, so it’s invaluable,” Lada said of setting up the mobile center, and tracking and budgeting supplies.
‘Strengthen our limits’
During the last decade of war, U.S. forces have operated out of forward operating installations. This training center rotation emphasized decisive action and potential future threats, so troops had to survive with what they had. That means even though there were forward bases within the training center for ongoing training for units deploying to Afghanistan, Greywolf couldn’t use them.
“A lot of soldiers hadn’t seen this type of operation before. To experience it for the first time puts on a light bulb,” said Lt. Col. Herbert Willingham, commander of Greywolf’s 215th Brigade Support Battalion.
“The environment provides the opportunity to strengthen our limits,” he said.
Companies from the support battalion had elements at the front lines with each of Greywolf’s maneuver battalions, and supplies were sent down as needed.
Because of the box’s size, convoys had to travel significant distances under the threat of criminal cartels and roadside bombs.
The support battalion’s service and recovery team also drove these roads to collect vehicles that had actually broken down, and those that were simulated.
“We’ve towed just about everything we could out here,” said Pfc. Alexander Hobart, a support battalion soldier who works on the M-88 A2 tow vehicle nicknamed “Hercules.”
“It’s a lot of different scenarios of other recovery jobs we haven’t done,” he said. “It’s a lot of on-hand learning.”
Find a balance
One night the 11-member recovery team picked up three vehicles, said Chief Warrant Officer-2 Kimberly Osteen, service and recovery technician for the support battalion.
“We have soldiers that haven’t deployed before, and this is giving them that environment of what it would be like,” she said. “The op-tempo, too, the fast pace. You have to get used to the stress.”
As the support soldiers operated, Willingham said safety and risk management were top priorities.
“Even though we have a mission to do, we have to find a balance between the two,” he said. “They have to get the proper rest.”
Willingham said he’s proud of the work his soldiers accomplished during the training center rotation. They remained focused and positive, despite the living conditions.
“It allows soldiers to see what they can do,” Willingham said. “When it’s all said and done, they can say, ‘I got through it. I accomplished the mission and I can do more than I thought I could.’”
To learn from their experiences, everything in the box was monitored by a team of observer-controllers stationed at Fort Irwin, who provide feedback and after action reviews.
“It’s a very positive environment and that’s important,” said Brig. Gen. Thomas James, deputy commander of maneuver for the division. “They coach, teach and help us.”
The observers established the problem set and conditions, adjusting the next scenarios based on how the brigade handled it, said Lt. Col. Chris Doneski, senior brigade trainer for the center.
“If they react well, we turn up the heat. If they react poorly, we conduct an after-action review and talk about how to fix it,” he said.
As the brigade prepares to return to Fort Hood later this month, Lesperance said this training environment allowed for his soldiers to become confident in their leaders and equipment.
“My soldiers will be confident and competent in their ability to operate in the future in whatever mission is at hand,” he said. “I appreciate the level of complexity, friction and stress. ... They’ve created a scenario that really allows me, as a brigade commander, to really feel confident for anything assigned by my division commander.”