Innovative unit training
October 30, 2008
By Don Kramer
FORT LEWIS, Wash. - A high-value individual, enemy combatant Abu Jafif, was spotted last week and Fort Lewis Soldiers were hot on his trail.
Four Stryker vehicles of Bravo Company's 3rd Platoon hit their initial phase line in the late afternoon of Oct. 24, the fourth day of live-fire training on Fort Lewis' Range 75.
The Reaper Platoon Soldiers were ready to advance on the objective - a walled compound with five buildings inside, cluttered with goats, junked cars, laundry and trash.
The companies of 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment took turns on the lanes of a training facility that, five weeks before, did not exist. A small miracle wrought from equal parts inspiration and sweat by 2-3 Inf. leaders and civilians in the offices of Fort Lewis Range Control got the project rolling. The desire was for a walled compound with lanes leading to it suitable for company live-fire and maneuver that could accommodate Strykers shooting their .50-caliber machine guns while on the move.
Soon, other elements of the Fort Lewis garrison headquarters were brought in - Public Works, contract workers, and Arrowhead engineers and volunteer carpenters. Two weeks of planning and preparation and three weeks of hard work later, the "Iraqi" compound, named "Objective Rocke" after the 2-3 Inf. battalion commander, stood ready to be assaulted.
"We're doing more of a time-sensitive target right now," Capt. Dan Threlkeld, the battalion fire support officer, said. "In Yakima, we did a high-intensity conflict attacking a known hostile compound, a terrorist training camp. We were echeloning fires, we were setting up traditional support-by-fire and lane fires directly on the objective. With this particular objective, we're doing more of a graduate-level, of what they would see in Iraq."
Patriot leaders on Range 75 were forced to be less heavy handed than in Yakima. The objective was not occupied entirely by enemy combatants, requiring more careful planning. Intelligence from battalion headquarters confirmed the presence of the HVI in the compound two kilometers ahead, but warned that he hid among women and children.
"Part of the intel says there are non-combatants in the compound," Threlkeld said. "That adds a level of complexity to it. Now this platoon leader is going to have to engage enemies but at the same time limit collateral damage so that this time, instead of ... just pounding the objective with direct and indirect fire, they have to maneuver using tactically sound movements to limit collateral damage."
Second Lieutenant Aaron McKenney of Cape Elizabeth, Maine, stopped to test fire weapons at his release point and ordered the two pairs of Strykers to split and begin bounding-overwatch to the objective. The Reaper Platoon leader was managing a sophisticated operation for his first platoon live-fire exercise.
A Mortar Carrier Vehicle and a Medical Evacuation Vehicle followed in support, while a Raven Unmanned Air Vehicle droned overhead. The UAV sent real-time information to laptops in the 2-3 Inf. S-2 shop, which were forwarded to the 3rd Platoon Soldiers as they maneuvered forward.
After two brief engagements en route, the Stryker vehicles pulled abreast and disgorged their Soldiers, who sprinted to locations near the compound. Four-man stacks formed at the wall to breach the prearranged door. Meanwhile, the Stryker vehicles moved to take up positions to isolate both sides of the compound from enemy encroachment from the surrounding area. The platoon would be busy enough without unwanted company from outside.
McKenney, who arrived in August to the Patriot Battalion after almost a year of infantry training at Fort Benning, had a lot on his plate.
"It's a pretty complex problem for a platoon leader to try to solve," said Maj. John Walton, the 2-3 Inf. operations officer.
It was exactly the multi-dimensional environment Lt. Col. Adam Rocke, his staff and commanders had designed for training their Soldiers and new leaders.
"We collectively sat and said 'How do we want to best maximize Fort Lewis (assets) to train our Soldiers for the realities of combat that we know it to be''" Rocke said. "And we came up with this objective right here."
Rocke, his top NCO, Command Sgt. Maj. Tim Dotson, new S-3 officer Walton, Threlkeld and the battalion's veteran leaders of multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, brainstormed suggestions for injecting realism into the training venue. The battalion presented its wishes to several civilians at Range Control, who coordinated building a training site as close to the Patriots' wishes as possible.
"Tell us what you want," Walton quoted Range Control leadership, and in five weeks, it existed on Range 75.
Chaos of combat
A booming explosion kicked up a huge cloud of dust and breached the door. The Reapers poured through the new opening in the compound wall. Some climbed steps to the roof to set up security, both internal and external, while other squad and team leaders barked orders to their Soldiers to form stacks to clear the maze of irregularly shaped rooms in the compound.
Two role players wandered into the middle of things in kufiyyahs and dish-dashes - head scarves and robes - to complain about the treatment of their goats. The two villagers found themselves quickly flexicuffed and on their knees outside the compound for their protection.
As teams began clearing the buildings inside, targets popped up in the distance. A 240 gunner on the roof engaged them with three-to-five-second bursts of automatic fire. Next to him, a squad mate's M203 launcher delivered grenades at personnel targets, with its characteristic metallic thump.
The Strykers fired their .50-cals at targets shaped like technical vehicles - armed light trucks. Still other targets appeared 90 degrees from the technicals, providing fire missions to the 120-mm mortar crew in the Stryker MCV. The violent dust storms and time-delayed explosions in the distance showed the rounds were dead on target.
The fires of multiple weapons ebbed and flowed, but when flowing they were deafening. The platforms firing within seconds of each other lent extreme realism to the operation.
Meanwhile, the clearing teams employed sensitive site exploitation techniques, uncovering a trove of intelligence - documents, weapons, improvised explosive device-making material. The Reapers took to heart a lesson learned by an earlier platoon, whose leaders arranged SSE documents on the ground while they moved on to clear the rest of the compound. They returned to find the goats making meals of them.
The MEV medics evacuated casualties, both friendly and enemy, while the battalion physician's assistant looked on.
The scoundrel Fareed Abul Jaffar was discovered, subdued after a struggle and escorted out of the compound. The SSE was gathered for inventory and transport and teams reported status.
Command Sgt. Maj. Dotson called a halt and gathered Bravo Company outside the front door of the compound for an extended after action review. The senior NCO found small things to address, but overall, the operation went well.
"Now you know what 'right' looks like," Dotson said. He told them to continue to build on good habits until they became second nature and they achieved "muscle memory."
"You think you're going so slow," Dotson said. "You're going faster and faster and don't even realize it. That's what we want."
The Patriot Soldiers responded enthusiastically to the day's training.
"This facility was a new experience, not just for the new Soldiers but also for the veterans," said Staff Sgt. Sven Burbach, a squad leader and seven-year member of the battalion. "It was something different. In Yakima, we know the layouts. Having something more close to home, it kept the motivation up. It was a great objective and the guys had a good time doing it."
Platoon Leader McKenney also appreciated the new training venue.
"This was the first time I got a chance to maneuver the trucks," he said. "The course is pretty good. It's not that long but it's just enough for us to get in formation, use our RWS, engage with the .50s to isolate the objective and support our dismounts."
The young leader learned valuable lessons while managing his assets in the day's high-intensity environment.
"I learned I can't do everything myself," McKenney said. "I've got to delegate down. A lot of times as a leader you want to be the one to call in a decision. But I've learned it's better if I take myself out of the situation and still run it as planned."
Room clearing was the highlight of the day for Pfc. Brandon Chaney of Marion, Ohio.
"The compound is set up a little more like real life," Chaney said. "Most of the rooms we've cleared before have been squares and rectangles. Here they've got civilians in the rooms, wildlife like goats. That surprised me a little.
We've not done a lot of searching for caches, SSE, things like that. Today we really learned how to search for things in a room."
In command of Bravo Company for less than six months, Capt. Andrew Pesature was happy with his company's progress and thankful that his platoon leaders and sergeants were being challenged.
"This is definitely a different scenario for the boys than Yakima, a little bit more advanced and much more realistic," Pesature said. "It gave them a lot more to think about ... In this, the tactical plan was the easy part. It was the thinking they had to do on the objective that was harder."
A veteran of three deployments, Pesature said the AAR was useful for fine-tuning, but he was pleased with his company's actions and reactions on the objective.
"Naturally, we focus on the things we can improve," Pesature said. "At the end of the day there's always something you can do to improve. But overall, had this been an actual mission in Iraq or Afghanistan, would we have accomplished it' Absolutely. That is the main thing."
Don Kramer is a reporter with Fort Lewis' Northwest Guardian.