Fort Lewis battalion adds a crucial, lifesaving capability
February 13, 2009
By Don Kramer
FORT LEWIS, Wash. - You won't find a spreader, halogen bar, 18 mm socket wrench or K12 cutter with a diamond blade on most modified tables of organization and allowances. Not yet anyway.
But recovery specialists in the 402nd Brigade Support Battalion are carrying them to the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., this week to use during the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division's Mission Readiness Exercise.
The specialized tools form part of their kits as newly trained extrication experts, tailored for Stryker vehicles.
The need for training on getting Soldiers out of disabled Strykers dates back to their arrival in Iraq, said Lt. Col. Steve Allen, commander of the 402nd BSB, as insurgents targeted the vehicles with rocket-propelled grenades and improvised explosive devices. At first, fires resulting from the attacks, with eight rubber tires providing ample fuel, was the focus of concern.
"When 1st Brigade, (25th Infantry Division) deployed, they were tasked with putting a fire-fighting team together," said Command Sgt. Maj. Charlie Chavez, 402nd BSB command sergeant major. "They ended up having to do it in-country, so, being proactive, we tried to put this together before we were tasked to do it. First Brigade struggled to put it together while having to do their mission."
The requirement to develop a Stryker-specific emergency-reaction capability before deployment took on momentum with reports from Operation Iraqi Freedom by Col. Stephen Townsend, commander of 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.
"It's the Stryker community purpose," Allen said, "figuring out how to crack this."
When word came in fall 2007 from 5th Bde., 2nd Inf. Div. commander, Col. Harry D. Tunnel IV, for Allen to develop rescue solutions, his team was already working the problem.
Like 1st Bde., 25th Inf. Div., 402nd focused first on fire-fighting. But in Stryker mishaps on Iraq's roads, ravines and canals, fires often were not a factor.
Life-saving techniques were another important component, but the most pressing requirement distressed-Stryker scenarios held in common was the need to rapidly extricate Soldiers.
While the support battalion grappled with the issue, 5th Brigade was simultaneously firming up its community-connector relationships with the city of Puyallup. When 402nd leaders invited their partners from Puyallup Fire and Rescue to Fort Lewis, they learned that a former Army Ranger had been working the same issue from another angle.
"That's when we met Kevin Williams," Allen said, "who had been trying to figure out for quite a while how they could test some of their stuff on armored vehicles, because of what they might see along the highway."
Williams, himself a firefighter with Central Pierce Fire and Rescue, was concerned with how local fire and rescue teams would pop the hatches to free Soldiers from Strykers involved in accidents on their way to or from area training.
Williams led Allen's leaders to the Pile-up in Puyallup, a competition among extrication teams in June 2007 that tested their skill in freeing trapped auto accident victims. Though they didn't compete, 402nd Soldiers got hands-on experience in advanced extrication training.
The experience wasn't with Strykers, but it began important problem recognition among the Soldiers.
"Cutting through armor is a lot more difficult than cutting through aluminum," said Sgt. 1st Class Julie Peer, maintenance control supervisor and NCO in charge of the B Co., 402nd BSB recovery section, "but it started them thinking: 'If they look like this, we do this.' That was the whole point of it."
The newly formed Fort Lewis Extrication Team had entered its first competition in the "pile-up." Williams quickly put Allen in touch with the FLEX team captain, Jeff Coffey, a member of Washington Local F-283 on post, who also had a relationship with the Puyallup extrication team. Coffey applied his experience to similar situations involving combat vehicles.
"I applied the same, exact principles we do to auto extrication," Coffey said, "and came up with specific emergency plans for Stryker vehicles ... We said 'Let's look at the natural openings, the hatches and doors, the latches. What makes the most sense'' We came up with (a list) starting with the most desirable Plan A and worked from there."
Coffey and Williams also recommended selected Soldiers attend the Burn to Learn course at the Washington State Fire Academy in North Bend. Thirteen 402nd Soldiers started the training in August, which included blocks on extrication, with two, Sgt. Chad Weathers and Spc. Justin Hulslander, graduating on Nov. 7 as certified firefighters.
Meanwhile, Allen had set up a unique TDY trip to Anniston Army Depot in Alabama the following week. Four Soldiers, senior automotive technician CW4 Paul MacDonald, Peer, Williams and Coffey traveled to the Army's scrap yard for damaged Stryker vehicles. All found the trip sobering.
"One of the first impressions when you drive up there and see this lot, you see the amount of damage the IEDs (and) the roadside bombs are doing to these vehicles," MacDonald said. "If you don't take anything else away from this training, you see how much damage is done to these vehicles. It's a big heart-stopper when you walk in."
Anniston provided invaluable insight and the final piece necessary to set the direction for Stryker extrication instruction. General Dynamics contractors allowed them to work on six disabled Strykers. It became quickly apparent that many of the tools and methods that worked on wrecked cars simply didn't apply to armored combat vehicles.
"After two days we were able to give them a solid idea of what works and what doesn't," Coffey said. "Everything before that ... was all theory, but nobody knew for sure."
Coffey and Williams refined the lists they had previously generated thanks to finally working on the Stryker vehicles. They also developed a list of tools necessary for the job though not in the 402nd BSB maintenance company's inventory.
Since then, Coffey has trained other 402nd Soldiers on extrication techniques and Allen has injected a scenario in the brigade MRX to test his battalion's new capability.
Despite the importance of the extrication capability, a primary drawback is that all assets -- people, time and equipment - come out of hide.
"We've only got so many folks here to do this," Allen said. "It's a balance. You pull (Soldiers) off their MOS and focus them on this. The road ahead is to get the recovery assets in each of our combat repair teams trained; long term, it's to get (the training) down to the infantry platoons."
The battalion command sergeant major saw the training as conforming to crucial Army values.
"If you take a look at the top things we do," Chavez said, "it's warrior ethos, never leave a fallen comrade, suppress the fire, locate them, treat them and get them out of there."
There is nothing more important, he said.
Don Kramer is a reporter with Fort Lewis' Northwest Guardian.