Training troops for deployment

Training troops for deployment

Heike Hasenauer

A CONVOY of Soldiers cautiously approaches a village in Iraq. They’ve been briefed that the local people are hostile, and to be prepared for attacks.

There’s only one way in and out of town–along route Yamaha. Their mission is critical; they must clear the route to the local hospital and police station, to allow follow-on troops to bring in supplies.

Pitfalls in the Village

In the distance, trash burns in rusted barrels by the roadside and spills from the burned-out hulk of an old bus. Even before the lead vehicle in the convoy reaches the perimeter of dilapidated concrete buildings, an improvised explosive device, or IED, detonates. And the Soldiers are distracted by the smoke, the trash and the loud blare of mournful Arabic chants that pour from loudspeakers and permeate the thick afternoon air.

The eeriness is bone chilling.

Within moments, the first vehicle rounds the street corner, and a mob of angry men and women threatens to harm its passengers. The would-be attackers shake signs, warning: “You will die here,” and “Go home. We don’t want you here.”

The Soldiers keep watchful eyes on the crowd, but they must focus on the road ahead, because IEDs could be set up virtually anywhere.

Nerves are further tested as dozens of villagers gather behind the open windows of the two- and three-story buildings, craning their necks to keep the Soldiers in sight. Every shadow is a potential killer toting a rocket-propelled grenade or AK-47 automatic weapon.

The events are not unlike those faced daily by Soldiers in Southwest Asia. The difference is that in Iraq and Afghanistan, Soldiers have little time to sort through options. They must react instinctively, based on skills the Army has taught them.

Training Support Divisions

Training Soldiers to stay alive in hostile environments is the mission of the Army’s training support divisions, among them the 75th Division, part of Fifth U.S. Army at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.

Before reserve-component Soldiers can be considered ready to deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan, they must undergo four months of mission-specific training geared toward real-world threats, said MAJ Wayne Marotto, the division’s public affairs officer.

For the division’s trainers, that’s meant training some 40,000 reserve-component Soldiers since January 2003, on everything from Abrams tank and Bradley fighting vehicle gunnery to motorized route reconnaissance and convoy operations.

Each day at the St. Elijah MOUT (military operations in urban terrain) site at Fort Hood, Texas, the division’s Soldier-trainers stage scenarios like those described above.

“We put them through every weapon-training event you can think of,” Marotto said. Numerous training scenarios present potential operational problems, such as hostile forces, IEDs and irate civilians.

The role of the division’s opposing forces is to wreak havoc on the troops, said SSG Martin Lawrence, a member of the OPFOR who also acts as an observer-controller.

Some 300 Texas residents from the Killeen area, outside Fort Hood, have been hired by the Army to play the angry locals.

Lessons Learned

“We incorporate training events based on lessons learned and real-time reports coming in from Iraq and Afghanistan,” Marotto said. “The Iraqis recently put an IED in an animal carcass. So now we simulate that in our training.”

Another lesson learned in Iraq is that “Iraqis saw our combat service support guys as ‘soft’ targets in unprotected Humvees,” said LTC John Siggelow, deputy commander of the division’s 2nd Brigade. “For a long time, these CSS Soldiers weren’t taught aggressive tactics. We’ve learned that if they’re aggressive when they’re approached by hostile Iraqis, the Iraqis will back off.”

LTC Steve Williamson, a battalion commander in the division’s 2nd Bde., said: “Training lanes are constantly changing, based on the most up-to-date information we receive. Today we might teach one way. Three weeks from now, we’ll teach another way.

“Today, the enemy is using dummy IEDs,” he said. “They’ll watch us react and then hit us with sniper fire. So, in training, the Soldiers are taught to look up.”

When the Iraqis started using cell phones and ignition systems to ignite IEDs, the British and Australians used localized jammers to jam the radio or telephone transmissions that the Iraqis were using to ignite the IEDs, Williamson said.

“The Iraqis have figured that out,” Williamson said. “That’s the difficulty we’re facing; they’re always changing their methods.”

“After the first Gulf war, Congressional legislation created Training Support XXI, to ensure reserve-component Soldiers would be ready to deploy to combat if needed,” said BG Walter Zink, 75th Div. assistant division commander.

“Today, we have a more robust training plan for reserve-component Soldiers than we did during the first Gulf war,” Zink said. “Even before National Guard and Reserve Soldiers are called to active duty, their proficiency is higher than it was then.”

The TSDs’ Responsibilities

Once the TSD is called up, it provides specialized training to units within its jurisdiction, based on the unit’s mission, Zink said.

Two training support divisions within Fifth U.S. Army–the 75th Div., from Texas, and the 91st Div., located near Sacramento, Calif.–are responsible for training reserve-component units located west of the Mississippi River.

First U.S. Army’s 78th TSD is responsible for training Reserve and National Guard units east of the Mississippi River.

The 75th Div., composed of some 4,000 active and reserve-component Soldiers, was activated in January 2003 to train Soldiers for combat, said Zink.

Training Focuses

Ever since Soldiers of the 507th Maintenance Battalion were ambushed in Iraq, training has focused on preparing every Soldier to be a rifleman first, whatever his or her MOS might be, Zink said. “We’ve also enhanced training in the law of war and the Geneva Conventions for all Soldiers.”

Additionally, the 75th Div. trains Soldiers scheduled to deploy to the Balkans, Sinai and other locations.

Ensuring the Best Training

Each of the four brigades within the 75th Div. is responsible for a specific portion of the training. And each Soldier in each brigade is considered a subject-matter expert in his field, Marotto said.

In fact, the observer-controllers, who follow practically every action and every response Soldiers make in training, must undergo proficiency tests and be validated as O/Cs by a board within the 75th Div. Ultimately, every trainer, in every training lane, is O/ C-qualified in either combat or CSS missions, Marotto added.

To further ensure Soldiers get the best training, the division’s active-duty Soldiers typically provide the training for combat-arms Soldiers, and its reservists train CSS Soldiers in preparation for deployment.

LaARNG Training Challenges

Recently, Soldiers from the Louisiana Army National Guard’s 256th Brigade Combat Team, which will deploy to Iraq this fall, underwent the rigorous training program at Fort Hood.

Typically a heavy mechanized brigade with Abrams tanks and Bradleys, the 256th will function as a motorized brigade in Iraq, “so they had to learn a whole new set of skills and be validated on those,” said Siggelow.

“The unit not only had to switch from tanks and Bradleys to Humvees, but they had to undergo a massive reorganization,” he said. “The weapons training alone was substantial, because they’ll be using crew-served weapons mounted on their Humvees in Iraq.” They have never used those before.

“And, the unit had to become ‘digitized’ so it could interface with the 1st Cavalry and 3rd Infantry divisions,” Siggelow said. That requires entirely new thought processes.

While digitization isn’t new to the Army, it is new to some reserve-component units that have not had the advantage of using the latest equipment, said COL Al Dochnal, commander of the 75th Div.’s 2nd Bde.

Trainers Also Far From Home

“We plan, schedule and conduct the training,” said Siggelow, “and ensure all the training resources are available when units get here.”

The trainers have themselves been on active duty–away from home, loved ones and regular full-time jobs–for as long as 18 months, Siggelow said.

Besides training Soldiers in the United States, 75th Div. trainers are in Afghanistan, training soldiers for the Afghan National Army, and in Iraq, training Iraq National Army troops, Marotto said. “That’s normally a special-forces mission.”

Providing Training and Equipment

At the end of each training event O/Cs conduct an after-action review to inform the Soldiers about what they did well and what they can do better before they go overseas, said Williamson. “It’s not sugar-coated. If they messed up, we say so.”

While at Fort Hood, Soldiers of the 256th, and other National Guard Soldiers, were issued some of the Army’s newest equipment, including improved hot-weather desert boots, improved Kevlar helmets and ballistic goggles through the Army’s Rapid Fielding Initiative program [see related story].

SPC Shelley Landry, a civil-affairs Soldier with the Louisiana Army National Guard, and SPC Tracy Tesch, a communications specialist in the Minnesota National Guard, were among a group of Soldiers who modeled some of the new equipment.

It included the CamelBak hydration system, a personal “air-conditioning” system; improved body armor; boots and Kevlar.

“We’ve received a lot of really excellent training,” Landry said. “Most important of all, because of the threat in Iraq, has been training on IEDs.

“I’m excited to be going to Iraq, where I can do some good,” she said. “I signed up to serve my country, and I’m ready to help rebuild Iraq so the people there can feel a little bit of the freedom we enjoy.”

When the Louisiana Guard Soldiers complete training, the Texas Guard’s 56th Brigade Combat Team of the 36th Inf. Div. will take its place. And the Soldier-trainers of the 75th Div. will continue their mission–training thousands of new Soldiers for the uncertainties of a hostile world.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Soldiers Magazine

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group