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

Monday, September 7, 2009

"Fight, Destroy, F'in Annihilate the Enemy."

Woohoo, three day weekend! Hope everyone has had an enjoyable Labor Day. Down here at Fort Benning we have taken advantage of the three day to be lazy prior to this weeks training (laziness for me including posting today instead of yesterday). Nothing really exciting to write about from last week as it was mostly classroom work and morning PT. The key point of the week was the continuous bonding that has occurred within 1st PLT since day one. Its a great group of guys; no whiners, all team players, funny, chop busters, and, most importantly, driven to do well and help each other do well over the course of IOBC.
Monday started with an hour and a half of combatives led by our PSG, SFC Watson. After reviewing different fighting techniques we broke for breakfast and headed to our first day of classes over in Building 4 (affectionately referred to as "Building Snore"). The first two days of the week were classes on the Troop Leading Procedures (TLPs) and OPORD writing led by our PLT mentor, Captain (CPT) Martin. CPT Martin is a junior Captain, meaning he has not commanded a company, and has been teaching IOBC students for more than a year. Wounded in Afghanistan when he was a PL, he wears an eye patch with a "Ranger" tab stitched on when he has to use the computer or read off the screen. His ability to talk about how he got wounded, how he dealt with it as well as other stories from him time as a PL has been a great source of knowledge and development. He was able to keep the dry material interesting and had some funny and/or motivating videos to show before each block of instruction as well as explain the job of the Infantry perfectly: "Fight, Destroy, F'in Annihilate the Enemy."

Tuesday was another round of TLP classes after a morning run. Wednesday we got our arms and abs smoked by SFC Watson for PT and then headed back to the classroom to receive the OPORD we would use to create our own with. Once we had been briefed on the order by CPT Martin we were cut loose to begin work on our OPORDs. This included reading (and re-reading and then re-reading again) various parts of the base order, heading to the library to blow up maps and get satellite imagery of the objective, and drawing out our plans on transparent sheets that would be placed over the maps. After a long night we had combatives again on Thursday followed by students briefing their OPORDs for the class. Each OPORD gave plenty of things to think about and most of us who didn't brief that first day changed our orders that night. Friday was a four mile ruck followed by more briefs before we got cut loose for the weekend.
My OPORD and Graphics. Photo by Author.
The weekend, like I said before was relaxing. We had Direct TV installed so we can watch all the football our hearts desire and we played cards and talked about our OPORDs. This week promises some exciting material as it's time to get lost in the woods during Land Nav again. Until then, ATW!