By Colleen Flaherty
Killeen Daily Herald
FORT HOOD - After sending six of her children to school and one to a baby-sitter on Friday, Anna Sutton reported to post to clear a small house of Afghan insurgents and rescue a hostage.
"It's the first time I've actually held or shot a gun," she said after executing the task unscathed. "It wasn't as scary as I thought. I definitely think I'll tell my husband about that."
Sutton's mission was part of the 69th Air Defense Artillery Brigade's first-ever Spouse Challenge, which pitted unit spouses against each other individually and as teams in virtual room clearings, convoy operations and weapons qualifications at the Warrior Skills Training Center.
Capt. Dennis Cooper, an operations battle captain with Headquarters and Headquarters Battery, designed the challenge with fun and authenticity in mind.
"I thought about the training I'd done as a first and second lieutenant, and what I actually enjoyed," he said. "Then I wanted something that said '69th ADA Brigade,'" he added, referring to the static displays of Avenger and Sentinel air defense systems and Patriot missile launchers outside the center.
Perhaps most authentic of all were the day's refreshments: meals-ready-to-eat, or soldier field rations.
Col. Randy McIntire, brigade commander, said the event served to honor spouses as well as identify potential unit volunteers. Leaders weren't sure what kind of turnout to expect, but were overwhelmed by the response, he said.
Not only did about 60 spouses attend, many wore T-shirts showing team pride and proved to be tough recruits.
"I like to take a few of them on as soldiers," he said, motioning to a particularly dedicated gunner mowing down virtual targets from the turret of an armored vehicle.
As well as fun, the event served to show what soldiers go through, said McIntire. "I think this is really valuable because we ask a lot of our soldiers, and (the spouses here today) can get a little bit better appreciation of what their day is like."
Because the Army's demand for air defense units is high, McIntire said at least one element of the brigade is always supporting some part of the Army Force Generation cycle, to keep it continually deployable.
"We're in a constant state of flux, so team-building is something we're thinking about all the time, and it's important for spouses, too," said McIntire.
Brigade Command Sgt. Maj. Finis Dodson said events such as the Spouse Challenge help shape the home team.
"This reinforces family readiness," he said. "Spouses can develop a greater appreciation of what the soldier goes through. This is as close as you can get to that, without going to the field or deploying."
Sutton's husband is deployed to Southwest Asia with the brigade's 4th Battalion, 5th Air Defense Artillery Regiment, and she said the event gave her insight into the life of a soldier while providing an opportunity to meet new friends.
"This is pretty amazing," she said, smiling. "I've gotten to know a few new wives who are really sweet."
Spc. Nicholas Carter, 1st Battalion, 44th Air Defense Artillery Regiment, recently returned from a deployment to Kuwait. He made sure he was available to cheer on his wife, Cara, during the challenge.
"'You've got this,'" said Cara Carter, imitating her husband during the room clearance exercise. "'You can do this!'"
Although Cara, a former member of the National Guard, said the event was a lot easier than what soldiers experience during training, it "opened our eyes to what they have to do."
McIntire said the brigade plans another Spouse Challenge in the fall.
Contact Colleen Flaherty at email@example.com or (254) 501-7559. Follow her on Twitter at KDHFortHood.