FORT POLK, La. — With the sound of blades chopping through the air in the background, soldiers unloaded air-refueling equipment from a Chinook on Thursday at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La.

The 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, which will deploy about 3,200 soldiers to Afghanistan this summer, started its force-on-force training Thursday at the center.

While the soldiers’ primary mission is security and retrograde, Col. Robert Whittle, brigade commander, said they’re preparing troops for whatever situations arise.

“These combat training centers are the most realistic environment that soldiers can train in,” he said. “What we’re doing is ensuring every soldier is prepared for combat operations.”

Whittle said the center creates the most realistic scenarios possible, followed by many rehearsals aimed at making responses to situations second-nature to the soldiers and leaders in formation.

He also said the center — about 100,000 acres of training grounds known as “the box” — simulates Afghanistan through the replication of everything, including role players portraying Afghan civilians, security forces and nongovernmental organizations.

“This just ensures that every soldier knows how to shoot, move and communicate and that they’re extremely confident when they head out to combat,” Whittle said. “What we want to have is a formation full of competent, confident soldiers and leaders who are fully prepared to head to Afghanistan and complete the mission.”

While the unit has been training at the center since late April, the exercises soldiers are executing aren’t part of the mission “Black Jack” Brigade soldiers were originally assigned.

Lt. Col. Mark Huhtanen, brigade deputy commander, said changes in the brigade’s task strengthened the soldiers’ cohesion.

Black Jack returned from its fourth and final deployment to Iraq in December 2011, and about half of the brigade was tasked to train for a security force assistance mission in Afghanistan about six months later. While soldiers were preparing to deploy, their mission was called off, and, in late February, the entire brigade was assigned a theater-enabling mission.

“These changes have probably made us come together faster than other units,” Huhtanen said. “It all came together and that’s the strength of this unit. We’ve got a lot of great soldiers and we’ve reacted to all these changes well. We built the team and that’s our strength really.”

Sgt. Patrick Seidel, 2nd Brigade Special Troops Battalion, will deploy for the first time and said the training gives him the preparation he needs.

From practicing tactics, techniques and procedures, to wearing all his gear and participating in mass-casualty exercises, Seidel said he likes the “mock deployment” training approach.

“This is my first taste of this. … It’s been good so far,” said Seidel, whose mission is signal support for the entire brigade. “It shows you what to expect a little bit and … gets you in the routine of what your job is going to be when you’re deployed.”

Sgt. Sean Duffy, of the same battalion, said the center lets troops — especially those who haven’t been to a combat training center before — build on the skills they received in basic training.

“(JRTC) is different,” Duffy said. “You don’t have helicopters and stuff like that in basic and you’re not as spread out. You’re not actually working with your equipment doing your (occupational specialty) job like you would here or in Afghanistan.”

The brigade will continue force-on-force training through Tuesday and return to Fort Hood by the end of May.

Contact Sarah Rafique at or (254) 501-7549. Follow her on Twitter at KDHreporter.

I'm the education reporter at the Killeen Daily Herald. Follow me on Twitter at

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