Sunday, October 25, 2009

Rooms and Booms

For the third week in a row Bravo company headed to the field for training but unlike the previous two weeks, there was no rain. Instead of rain though there were ridiculous temperature fluctuations, sometimes as much a fifty degree change from morning to midday. Besides the shiver inducing mornings the week was filled with good training in Urban Operations (UO) and explosives. Monday started with a short run for PT before we drew weapons and headed out to the McKenna MOUT (Military Operations in Urban Terrain) site to jump right into training. We started with the basics of entering and clearing a room then moved onto flow drills where fire teams of four men would leapfrog from room to room and then finished with how to move up and down stairwells and between buildings when outside. That night we did a mission that included having to clear six multi-story buildings while being shot at by OPFOR and also dealing with civilians getting in the way, one of which being a woman going into labor.

Tuesday we headed to the live fire range to first shoot on a regular range and then we transitioned to the shoot house. The shoot house is a multi room structure with walls specially constructed to stop bullets so soldiers are able to fire live rounds anywhere in the building in any direction. Above the rooms are catwalks that give platoon trainers a bird's eye view of the teams clearing inside the building. Since we fire in such close quarters, numerous practice runs were done prior to going "live." The targets we were shooting at were suspended by balloons, so when rounds went into the target the balloon would pop and the target would fall to the ground simulating a dead insurgent. Once we were done we cleaned weapons and bedded down early in preparation for Wednesday's RTB run.

Wednesday began at 0400 as we crawled out of our sleeping bags into the chilly 34 degree morning. To make things more fun, we were in shorts and t-shirts since we would be doing our last 5 mile run of the course. We bussed out to Ranger Training Battalion (RTB) to do our 5 mile run on the same course we will run in January when we arrive at Ranger School. After the run was done we changed back into our combat uniforms, grabbed our gear, and headed over to the demolition range.

Lt. Sean Tolliver shows off the crater he made with his C4 charge. Photo by Author.

Once at the range we received classes on how to rig a C4 charge, a water impulse charge, and how to use det-chord to blow holes in doors and knock off hinges. We then finished the day with claymore mines. The video below shows three doors being blown away with a variety of different charges.

We returned from the demo range and had dinner before heading back to McKenna for night operations. The mission would be a raid on a multi-section, two floor building with the intent of killing or capturing a high value target (HVT), played in this case by CPT Martin.. In daylight the building is a maze with numerous hallways and dangerous corners. At night the building is just as much the enemy as the squad of OPFOR hiding inside it. We would run the same mission two times in a row with different levels of resistance and challenges. The PL for these two missions would be me. In 20 minutes the SLs and myself put a plan together to sneak into the building and capture the HVT. Our night vision would be our greatest advantage in the near pitch black building and I planned to breach a window to establish a foothold while trying to be sneaky. Our cover was blown right away and once we got into the building shots were ringing out all over. We moved slowly and methodically trying to be quiet until we had to shoot. We got our HVT and exfilled before resetting and doing it again. We did well and CPT Martin was impressed even though I made a few mistakes in planning the OP. We bedded down at 0100 and woke six hours later ready to finish our last day in the field.

Thursday was a day of simunition training and we all walked out covered in paint splotches and bruises where we had no body armor. We came home that afternoon and began prepping for our last major event of the week, a 12 mile roadmarch. The roadmarch began at 0500 Friday morning and we had three hours to complete the march. Lt. Sean Tolliver and myself crossed the finish line together at 2 hours and 49 minutes and dropped our rucks while we waited for the rest of 1st Platoon to finish. Once everyone was in we headed home to start the weekend as our CO gave us the rest of the day off to recover. This upcoming week we are back in the classroom to learn about counterinsurgency and defensive operations. There are only three weeks left in IOBC and Ranger School looms on the horizon for all of us. Until next week, ATW!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

"If It Aint Rainin', We Aint Trainin"

Lt. Ross White surveys the aftermath of an evening storm. Photo by author.
I don't know how long the phrase "If it aint raining, we aint training," has been around the Army but its quite a ridiculous statement. For some reason Army training is thought to be good only when its raining and training in nice weather is more like practice. Well if this line of reasoning is correct then the men of Bravo Company had the best training ever this past week and perpetually wet feet to go along with it. Precipitation aside, 1st PLT got to do some sweet missions this past week. The week began on Tuesday with normal PT prior to us heading out on trucks to the training area.
The main event of the week would be a squad live fire exercise in which an assaulting element would clear a bunker with a grenade. Before we could do this live though there was extensive train ups and rehearsals during the daytime. The clouds rolled in during the middle of the day as we practiced lane. As a SAW gunner, I would be part of the support element and would help lay down a base of fire to suppress the enemy which in this case would be plastic green popup targets. The rain began as we trained during the day but stopped for a little bit after dinner. CPT Martin gave us a class on how to cordon a building and conduct a search of a house prior to us going on a night mission. One of my roommates, Lt. Adam Fugent, would lead the mission as PL. Lt. Fugent put together an OPORD and terrain model quickly and briefed the PLT on how we would cordon the building and conduct the search.
Lt. Adam Fugent shakes off the rain as he preps for a mission. Photo by author.
The cloud cover gave a new dimension of difficulty since there would be little ambient light for our NVGs to use which would result in our night vision capabilities being reduced. We set out into the dark woods for 600 meters and then began our cordon. Everything was going well until a "sniper" started picking off guys from the wood line. With the search complete, Lt. Fugent dropped mortars in the tree line to suppress the sniper and we withdrew back to our PB. We laid down for the night just as the rain started to trickle down. By 0100 the rain went from a trickle to a constant rain that would last into mid-morning Wednesday. Wednesday was more rehearsals and an early night's sleep to prepare for the live fire on Thursday.
There was no rain during the live fire but it was a bit muddy as we headed out. Lt. Nick Runyon led 4th SQD on the lane and we engaged our targets effectively and quickly as they came up. Lt. Brandon Schmidt then tossed a grenade simulator in the bunker to kill the bad guys before we consolidated on the objective and fired off the rest of our ammo against an enemy counterattack coming from our west. When it was all over I had fired over 500 rounds through my SAW and 4th SQD was declared the best squad to run the lane that day. We cleaned weapons and ate dinner prior to our foot movement to our next training area. It was at this point things got bad. With no buildup or warning the skies opened up in a complete downpour and lightning crashed nearby. Soaked and weighed down with extra gear, we stepped off on the short walk to the next training area. The rain broke for a few minutes, enough time to set up poncho hooches to bed down under. After crawling under our hooches, the skies opened back up complete with more thunder and lightning. Three separate thunderstorms came through that night. During the third one, which came in around midnight, laughter could be heard up and down the PB. Soaked and tired, it was all that could be done.
Friday was rainless but cold as we went into our last day or training which was a live call for fire exercise. Out in an open field were old tank hulls waiting to have 81mm mortars dropped on it. I got my rounds on target on the second shot and then fired for effect, dropping 20 rounds on the area. It was awesome. We got on trucks and drove back to the company area more than ready for a dry weekend at home. Next week is urban ops week and a twelve mile road march so there will be some good stuff to talk about. Until then, ATW!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Working For the Weekend

Its a rainy Monday here at Fort Benning as we enjoy the final few hours of our three and a half day weekend which started last Friday. It was another wet week in the field for Bravo Company but a good week of training nonetheless. Monday began with a normal PT session before we loaded our trucks and headed out to our training area. The key tasks to be completed this past week were squad lanes or Situational Training Exercises (STX). In each lane a squad must fight through a small tactical scenario. These lanes are the building blocks for larger Platoon STX lanes. Monday was the introduction to the backbone of Army tactics: Reacting to Contact and Squad Attack. In reacting to contact, the squad receives enemy fire and takes cover while returning fire. The second phase is the attack portion where the SL moves his fire teams in such a way that he is able to get on the enemy's flank in order to kill him. After drilling this all day, I headed back to the land nav course to bed down prior to testing the next morning.

Tuesday morning began at 0300 with land nav and once complete we moved back to the training area and made a patrol base on the side of a hill. A patrol base is a 360 degree camp that soldiers occupy in order to plan missions, clean weapons, eat, and, when possible, sleep. From the patrol base (PB) we patrolled out and set up an ambush to destroy any enemy fleeing the attack from another one of our squads on an adjacent objective. This brought us to an introduction on clearing rooms and then another lane in which we left the patrol base and raided a house in the middle of the woods. That evening, amidst rain and fatigue, 1st PLT manned the PB for what we knew was going to be a long, sleepless night.

We were done setting in security at about 2300 and began to implement our rest plan: half the platoon up pulling security while the other half slept. I was up to sleep first but within a half hour of closing my eyes flares were being shot over our position, illuminating the dark sky like a mega light bulb. The flare would blind our NVGs and ruin our natural night vision for a few moments. After the flares gunfire erupted to the rear of the PB and the whole platoon got online with their weapons to defend the PB. This went on all night up until 0700 and most of the PLT got about 2 hours of sleep. That day we had another lane in which the squad would patrol into a farm area and speak with a "local" before being drawn into an ambush. After this we headed out for another land nav course, this time using GPS and doing it completely at night. My partner once again would be LT Nick Runyon and we set out into the muddy roads of the course just after 2000hrs that Wednesday night. We returned three hours later with all seven points and were the first ones to finish in our PLT.

Thursday was our last day of squad lanes after being able to sleep in late for the first time that week. We then moved on to learning how to attack and destroy a bunker prior to preparing for the 10 mile roadmarch Friday morning. After dinner, some copperhead snakes decided to pay a visit to 3rd PLT patrol base resulting in the snakes untimely demise. As we bedded down we looked across at 3rd PLT's area and saw they had created a large bonfire. The next morning we found out the fire was to cook the snakes.

Friday began early at 0300 and we stepped off on the long walk home around 0500. It was incredibly humid and as 1st PLT walked into the company area back on main post it looked as if we had been swimming in our gear rather than marching home. The 10 mile march took us into the weekend as our CO let us go at 1000 that day. The three day weekend was a welcome break and was what everyone had been working so hard for this past week. As the weekend draws to a close we are preparing for another week in the field and the rain that will of course be joining us. There's a bunch of live fires this week and also the beginning of platoon STX lanes. Should be another good week of training. Until then, ATW!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Thayer Week

Thayer Statue at West Point.
Back at the USMA there are weeks known as "Thayer Weeks." These weeks are academic nightmares where everyday there is a major test, project, or paper due. They are stressful, tiring, and require a vast quantity of Red Bull to get through. I though Thayer Weeks were done but I was wrong. This past week was the Infantry School's version of a Thayer Week. The week started with a test at 0600. It was the first part of our two part test on combatives. For the first test we paired up and had to execute a few of the myriad of moves we had learned over the past five weeks. But execution is not enough, you need to talk through each move step by step as if you were teaching it to someone who has never done this before. Some moves only had five points to talk about but some others had up to fifteen. Not exactly a test that is easy to study for. We all passed and moved onto Building Snore for the first block of classes we would have over this week. No field, no weapons, no gear just Powerpoint. Lots of Powerpoint.
Monday's classes were on radios and included the different types the Army uses, how to use them, and how to set them up. The afternoon was a class on the FBCB-2 (don't know what that stands for). Its a cool computer that can be put in a HMMWV (humvee) and can act like a GPS, an instant messenger, and do a host of other cool stuff. Tuesday was part two of the combatives test. Starting at 0545 we began the Clinch Drill test. This test consists of being repeatedly punched in the face as you attempt to "close the distance" and control the puncher's arms by applying a clinch. You get to do this four times before you pass. At the end of the drill we were Level One Certified in combatives. Tuesday was classes on more radios and then engineering operations. Wednesday was regular PT and more Powerpoint, this time on Chemical Operations (to include Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical weapons threats) and was followed with a class on supply. Thursday was stretching to prepare for the PT test on Friday and classes on the Law of War and Close Air Support.
Friday held our final two tests of the week. The morning was the Ranger Physical Fitness Test (RPFT). Unlike the normal APFT we take, the RPFT has a five mile run instead of a 2 mile run and you have to do chinups after the run. The test needs to be past before you can enter Ranger School. So at 0445 we started doing pushups, situps, and the run. After passing the RPFT, it was time for the big test of the week, the CATD Exam. The exam is eighty questions long with a two hour time limit and covered all of the classes of week four (machine guns and fires) and all the classes of this week. Once the test was over it was time for POETS (Piss Off Early, Tomorrow's Saturday) and we began the weekend.
Not an exciting week but this coming week should be. We have a full week in the field doing squad tactics, another land nav test, and a 10 mile road march into the three day weekend. Good times. Until then, ATW!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Theory, Steel Rain, And Being a Weasel

2LT Runyon engages targets with the M240-B. Photo by Author.

About 150,000 rounds of 5.56mm and 7.62mm went down range this week as Bravo Company completed machine gun week. I don't think I've ever seen so much ammunition fired and it was a blast for all of us. Machine guns(MGs), for a lack of a better description, are cool. The week began with classroom instruction on MG Theory. We learned the different ranges of MGs as well as their capabilities, how to employ them, and how they fit in the mission planning process. Anyone who subscribes to the idea of the "dumb, knuckle dragging Infantryman" is clueless. There is allot of thinking and math involved when it comes to putting these weapons into place and even more thinking and math when it comes to calling for fire (CFF). We had CFF classes after MG Theory and learned the different types of artillery and mortars that are only a radio call away. We then learned how to calculate OT Factor and adjust fire as we observe rounds hitting our objective.

Tuesday was more classes on MGs and then a CFF simulation. The CFF simulator is a huge screen almost as large as a movie theater screen with an image of an objective area projected on it. The image matches up to the map on our desk and is calibrated to a pair of binoculars we each had. On the screen were tanks that needed to be destroyed and we went through the sequence of calling for fire over a radio and watched the screen to see where our rounds landed. We then called in the proper adjustments until we were close enough to call over "Fire For Effect" which would bring a whole lot of "Steel Rain" down on the tanks making them explode and burn on the screen. Later that afternoon we went to downtown Columbus to go to the Infantry Warfighters Conference and look at all the new toys different companies are trying to sell the Army. Along the way, Nick Runyon and I ran into our West Point TAC and mentor Major Josh Bookout. We asked about how our Cadet company, the Frogs, were doing and how they were fairing without us. We then got all the other Frogs here at Fort Benning together for a family reunion dinner with MAJ Bookout.

Wednesday we zeroed our MGs and I sighted in the optic and laser on my SAW which I will carry for the remainder of the course. Once sighted we qualified on our guns prior to letting the rest of the platoon shoot to become familiarized with the weapons. We then waited for night to fall to do a night fire with the MGs. The sights and sounds of 12 MGs opening up with tracer rounds lighting up the night is an awesome sight. In the video below you will see streaks of light fly across the screen. Those are red tracer rounds that show the flight of the round as it heads down range.

LTs engage targets during night fire. Video by Author

Thursday was our Support By Fire (SBF) exercise where we would move from a security halt and set up our SBF. The SBF is controlled and led by the Weapons Squad Leader (WSL) or "Weasel." The WSL runs up and down the line controlling the rates of fire and ensuring the guns shift to targets accordingly as the fight develops. The first iteration I was on my SAW and was having a ball knocking down targets with 6-9 round bursts. Even more enjoyable was being the WSL on the second iteration, my first time since being here I would act in a leadership experience. I designated targets for the M240-Bs and SAWs on the line and then told them when to open up. Running back and forth between the gun positions I adjusted rates of fire and called out targets as well as running ammunition between different guns when one would go down or need a barrel change. We did well on both iterations before coming home for the night.

Friday was an 8 mile road march with 40lbs rucks in the morning and then weapons cleaning for the rest of the day. We got released a little early and headed home after an awesome week of training. Next week is all classroom as we learn about joint operations, combined arms tactics, and receive our Ranger Brief. Until then, ATW!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

"Shared Hardship and Earning That Blue Cord"

The Army calls it "Shared Hardship." Those on the ground going through it just call it "Sucking" or just "The Suck." No matter what it's called the principle of going through a miserable experience in order to build team work and faith in each other is an Army mainstay going back to Valley Forge. Now I'm not going to be as dramatic to say our time in the field this week was even near the same universe as our forefathers' experience in the cold and snow at Valley Forge but I can assuredly say that 1st PLT is far better for what we did this past week.

To start with, it rained every day this week. As Forrest Gump said, "We'd seen all types of rain." Monday started marksmanship week and began with zeroing both our iron sights and our M68s. I paired up with my roommate and good friend, 2LT Nick Runyon for the zeroing part of the day and we finished in about an hour before moving on to qualification on the range next door. It sprinkled a little bit but nothing too bad. We started the day at 0800 and had finished zero and qualification by 1400. At BOLC II at Ft. Sill it had taken four days to do as much. We got to go home that night and prep for the next few days.

Tuesday was CQM on a large open field with no cover. The sun was out in the morning sun burning us when we were not wearing our helmets. We were glad when the clouds rolled in to cover up good ole BOB (Big Orange Ball) but were soon in for a treat as lightning passed through the sky followed by crashes of thunder and complete down pour. In true Army fashion we broke out our rain proof ponchos and covered our rucksacks and rifles to keep them from getting wet rather than covering ourselves. There we stood in a thunderstorm getting soaked, laughing the whole way through it. One LT brought up the point that anywhere else people were trying to get inside or breaking out umbrellas but not us. We were hooping and hollering as the rain pooled in our boots and puddled around where we would sleep that night. We would not be dry for the rest of the week. That night, with the rain on and off, we zeroed our lasers so that we can fire our weapons at night using our NVGs. We then did CQM in the dark which was a cool experience. Luckily, the rain stopped around 2200 and we slept under a starry sky.

The next morning we did two hours of combatives in the wet field prior to starting our six mile roadmarch. If there was ever a point when raid would have been nice it would be on the road march. But instead we got the full sun with high humidity to go along with our 70 lbs rucksacks. The route was muddy and under water from the rain the day before, slowing us down as we trudged our way up and over the hills along our route. We arrived two hours later at our next training area a few pounds lighter and soaked in sweat. We smiled at each other through sore backs, chafed hips, and blistered feet and talked about how much the march sucked. We ended the day with more marksmanship training and set up hooches (little tents made out of our ponchos) before bedding down for the night. Sure enough at about 0300 the next morning, thunder and lightning returned bringing more rain and a wet morning.

Thursday was fire team live fire day and it rained on and off as we moved in teams of four, alternating covering fires and movement forward towards different pop up targets on the range. The range was a good time and we were happy to be getting paid to have that much fun. The range ended early and we headed home to showers, dry clothes, and night in doors. The following day, part of the Platoon to include myself, headed out to do land nav while the rest did more shooting. The land nav course was thick with mud and puddles that slowed movement, especially around the many creeks that ran through the wood line. The week had been rough but had brought us closer together through our "shared hardship." I'm sure there will be more to come as the course progresses. At the end of the day we all got together and talked about the upcoming weekend and thought about what one of the CPTs had said when the rain was coming down the hardest: "You're earning those Blue Cords today, men."

The Blue Cord is worn around the right shoulder on dress uniforms by branch qualified Infantrymen, both Officers and Enlisted. It is hard to miss and is the quickest way to identify who is an Infantryman. At the end of the course upon graduation, all the Officers in this course who make it to that point will be awarded the Blue Cord and be authorized to wear it for as long as we stay in the Infantry.

Major James Uptgraft and myself at my commissioning at USMA. The Blue Cord around MAJ Uptgraft's shoulder is the mark of a branch qualified Infantryman. Photo from Author's collection.

The weekend has been dry and full of laundry and cleaning mud off our gear. This week brings Machine Gun Week, complete with classes on MG Theory, an eight mile road march, and a whole lot of shooting. Also, the Marines may have great commercials but the Army has its share of good ones as well. Check out this spot for Army Officership:

Until next week, ATW!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

No Go's, Gut Checks, And Why We Fight

Contrary to intuition, four day work weeks can be quite rough. Since starting my officer training this summer I have not had a more physically taxing week than this past one and from here on out it is only going to get more intense. Tuesday started the work week and as our British exchange NCO in charge of our company stated, "Nothing good happens on the first day back at work." Well, that was driven home from the minute we fell in for PT formation. On the docket that day: 5 mile run in under forty minutes. Now for good runners this may not seem too bad but for me (I have never been fast) to finish under forty minutes would be a challenge. This run must be completed under the time hack in order to go to Ranger School in January. Well, I was moving pretty good the first 3 1/2 miles until a big hill which kicked my butt. With one mile left I had ten minutes left. Not too daunting, right? Well my legs started to tighten up and there was still another major hill to run up and at the top of the hill is the finish line. Gut check one of the week: finish the run. I pushed myself hard up the hill and blazed (sarcasm) across the finish line at 39:47. There's room for improvement.
Later that day we went to the practice land nav course. We had five hours to find seven out of nine points and I plotted my points quickly and headed out. Unlike Fort Sill, there are trees, dense vineage and other vegetation so tromping through the woods is tough. To stay on the right course through all of that is even more of a challenge. I came back in with six points found and a little unhappy until I found out that nobody had found more than three in my platoon. The reason for this is that the map didn't not match up with the GPS coordinates meaning each point was 200 meters off from where we plotted. Basically a waste of effort but I felt confident I would do well on the actual test the following morning since I had found the most points. In hindsight I should have realized I had made a mistake plotting because I should not have found those six points. The mistake would be driven home the following morning.

Up early at 0300 after a few hours asleep under the stars, we began the actual test before the sun came up. The dense foliage blocked out moon illumination so much it was hard to see your hand in front of your face let alone the trees, ditches, and creek beds. I literally stumbled through the woods to my first point and along the way fell into a creek soaking my boots and the rest of me. Four hours of walking through the woods soaking wet is not appealing. After that, I couldn't find a point to save my life. By 0700, with two hours left I still had one point. I tried to re-plot my points when the sun decided to come out and ran the trails trying to get another six points in two hours. Despite my best effort I found only one more (by accident no less) and was a No Go and have to re-test this coming week. I asked SFC Watson to check my points and when he plotted them my mistake became clear: I used my protractor (which I had just gotten and never used before) wrong. My plots were 200-300 meters from where they should have been. This explains my success the day before and the debacle that had just occurred. So in a day and a half I had run or walked through rough terrain over 18 miles and had nothing to show for it. On top of this, we were doing combatives when we got back from the land nav course. Gut check two: Shake off the feeling of failure and get ready to fight. Tired and dejected I was able to win all three fights I had that afternoon and ended the day on a high note.

Thursday, sore and tire we went to the obstacle course. The obstacle course is fun, like a jungle gym for big boys, and I did well. Many of the of the obstacles such as the Tough One and the Confidence Climb deal with heights up to thirty four feet and involve rope climbing, vaulting, and weaving through beams. After finishing and adding some new bumps and bruises to myself it was time for the third gut check: One mile run in full ACU's and boots back to the company. We all finished strong

The rest of the week was weapons classes in prep for range week which starts this Monday. More time sleeping under the stars, a road march, and plenty of shooting are in store next week.

I try to keep this blog about things at work and throw in some personal stuff as well for kicks and I try not to editorialize but I feel I would be remiss if I did not talk about 9/11 as the eighth anniversary was yesterday. It is not my place as a military officer to editorialize on the actions and decisions of Commanders in Chief or those above me so I will keep those thoughts, both good and bad, to myself. However, some comments have been made on the radio down here and by some of my peers that Americans have forgotten so quickly the sacrifices of that day. I do not agree. It is impossible to not remember the heroic actions and losses of that day. It is important though for the general population to not dwell on it. Those affected directly will always live with the pain of that day but for the rest it is more important to look around them and be thankful for the men and women around them who wear a uniform to work and do a dangerous job for less than stellar wages. The cops, firemen, EMS personnel, and military that serve today should be the focus for Americans on Patriot's Day. The simple act of thanking a police officer on your corner for what he or she does will do more for the memory of those who passed away on 9/11 than to fly the Flag on your front porch.

Police Officer Moira Smith, one of 23 NYPD officers who died saving others on 9/11
The war in Afghanistan is picking up in a big way (I will be there this time next year) and those who fight there are keeping the memory of those who died on 9/11 alive as well. It is a hard fight but a fight which must be won if there is to be any sort of closure on the events of that Tuesday morning. For those who died that day, for those who lost loved ones, and for all those who will come after and choose to serve in uniform, this is why we fight.
"War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself." - John Stuart Mill