ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (06/08/2007) -- The National Guard teamed up with the Border Patrol and other law enforcement organizations for advanced weapons training.

In late May, New Mexico hosted a 40-hour Gunfighter Course. Each Soldier or Airman fired about 2,500 rounds - more in a week than some fire during a six-year enlistment.

Guard members - most of them cadre from the state's Combat Arms Training Company - are going back and sharing their knowledge. "We take what we learn here back to CATC and teach advanced weapons training," said Maj. Frank Oliveira, CATC commander.

The Guard used an Albuquerque Police Department range and invited Border Patrol, police, corrections officers and other colleagues for the course that ended June 1. Of 40 students, about 25 were from the National Guard. The New Mexico Air National Guard loaned the weapons, and the state provided the ammunition.

Designed for people with intermediate to advanced skills, the course has become a New Mexico annual tradition. "Shooting is a perishable skill," said Sgt. 1st Class Manny Bustillos Jr., attending his third Gunfighter Course. "If you don't do it often, you lose it."

A study found that shooting skills decline after just eight days away from the weapon, said Pat Rogers, a former chief warrant officer in the Marine Corps, and a former New York City Police Department sergeant.

New Mexico reached out to Mr. Rogers to lead the training after Operation Enduring Freedom began in 2002, said CATC 1st Sgt. Jason Riley, crediting Brig. Gen. Kenny C. Montoya, the state's adjutant general, with enabling the innovative training. "Montoya has been adamant that New Mexico National Guardsmen get the most modern and up-to-date, battle-focused training available," said 1st Sgt. Riley. "We've got tremendous feedback from both Afghanistan and Iraq; that the training provided by CATC and some of the specialized instructors like Pat Rogers made a big difference."

"We're not talking about shooting. We're talking about fighting," Mr. Rogers said. "For years we have stayed with marksmanship rather than marksmanship, weapons manipulation and mindset. It's a quantum leap."

Mr. Rogers, 60, brings special operations doctrine to the course, which focuses on the M-16 or M-4 carbine platforms in conjunction with the 9 mm pistol. Among other resources, he studies the latest military after action reports to guide his training.

This year's course included Guard Soldiers who are about to deploy. About 18 CATC members will train an Afghan National Army battalion. "The skills we've developed here will help us when we get over to Afghanistan," 1st Sgt. Riley said.

Sgt. 1st Class Bustillos is senior instructor for the CATC's military operations on urban terrain MOUT section. "This is a good opportunity to keep my tactics and my shooting up," he said. "This is probably the last time we get range time like this before we get deployed."

He said attending the Gunfighter Course multiple times has improved his weapons-handling speed and combat skills. Perhaps such constant training helped Sgt. 1st Class Bustillos finish the week as the top gun among the Guard members, scoring 97 out of 100 points on a final qualification test.

Skills covered include how to properly assemble individual gear so it functions in the smoothest way with the carbine and pistol; shooting on the move; tactical reloading; weapons handling and manipulation; and clearing malfunctions.

Sgt. 1st Class Bustillos is a convert. "I come from a background where shooting was 500 meters out, scoring hits - but that's not the way you fight nowadays, everything is close," he said. "It's MOUT, CQB (close quarters battle) and you need to really change the way the tactics are, because the enemy obviously are not fighting the way they used to."

Basic rifle marksmanship followed by annual familiarization and qualification is not enough, the CATC NCOs and their civilian mentor insist. "We're not shooting enough," Mr. Rogers said. "It requires constant sustainment training."

Shooters tackle an obstacle course and an exercise that this year followed a scenario involving foreign terrorists partnering with domestic gangs to kidnap a person with crucial information that could enable them to set off a weapon of mass destruction.

Soldiers move through the course tactically, using voice and hand signals, firing at targets and receiving sudden situational changes over the radio. They must assess an evolving scenario that includes distinguishing between the bad guys and the good-guy hostage and recognizing the value of potential intelligence materials.

Because it's a civilian-taught course, correct uniform is not required, and some Soldiers "sanitize" their uniforms, removing rank or tabs to remind themselves that, for this week, only gunfighting matters.

Staff Sgt. Patrick Williams removed his rank and the tab that identifies him as a Ranger, fresh into the National Guard as a CATC instructor after a decade with the 1st Ranger Battalion. Williams said CATC's reputation persuaded him to join the National Guard.

"I wasn't expecting to see the great things that I have seen," Williams said. "The initiative is there, the intestinal fortitude. It's comforting to know that Guard members have stepped up to the plate and are ready to go and fight this nation's wars."

Maj. Oliveira, the CATC commander, said his first time through the Gunfighter Course boosted his confidence with the weapon. "Knowing what I can do with it, and also the transition - when the carbine goes down, it's second-nature to go for that pistol and engage the target."

At times, this range feels more like a war zone than a domestic facility south of Albuquerque. Gunfire mingles with the screech of jets and thud of helicopters from Kirtland Air Force Base. The wind blows up the desert dust, and in late May the temperature exceeds 100 degrees.

"The majority of infantry engagements take place under 200 meters, with the majority of those taking place in under 100 meters," Mr. Rogers said. "What we need to do is improve their ability to get close-range hits."

Other important skills include engaging multiple targets, shooting from different positions and shooting in close proximity to other Soldiers - all under strict time constraints.

Mr. Rogers has contributed a fighting mentality to Guard members, Sgt. 1st Class Bustillos said. "On the [traditional] range, it's mostly about precision shooting and getting rounds on the target, but they get away from the actual fighting element. You're in a fight, you're not shooting paper. Senior leadership needs to understand that you can be the most tactical guy out there and go to the marksmanship range, but if you're not learning how to fight with your gun, then you're training your guys to fail."

Senior leadership in the New Mexico National Guard does understand that, 1st Sgt. Riley said. He said Montoya allowed the state's training NCOs to think and actually reach outside the box to get Guard members the best training.

Montoya called in senior NCOs after the war in Afghanistan began, 1st Sgt. Riley recalled.

"Keep my Soldiers alive," 1st Sgt. Riley recalled Montoya saying, The NCOs tapped outside expertise. "We began to send people to civilian and special operations courses," 1st Sgt. Riley said. "We started taking pieces from each of those courses. We started teaching a lot of those skills. We decided it would be best to do an instructor-development course once a year with Pat [Rogers]."

Mr. Rogers noted Guardmembers' varied backgrounds, including prior military service and civilian vocations as law enforcement officers, firefighters or emergency medical technicians. "Their experience level may exceed in certain areas what you see in the 'big Army'," he said. "I've seen a tremendous increase in the professionalism. I know a great many people who have gone into the Guard from the active duty side that would not have done it prior to 9/11. The quality of the people is great."

But Mr. Rogers also struck a cautionary note. "The quality of the equipment is generally poorer than what you would see in the 'big Army'," he said. "What we're seeing is more equipment, better equipment, better training - but it's still probably nowhere near where it needs to be."

Nevertheless, Mr. Rogers said the National Guard is a domestic and overseas operational force that has transformed itself since the 9/11 terrorist attacks and is essential to both homeland security and the war fight.

The Gunfighter Course is five days. Mr. Rogers also teaches a more basic three-day course, and 1st Sgt. Riley recommended that's where Guardmembers inexperienced with weapons start. "Most of the people here are pretty skilled shooters and operators, so it makes it very difficult to jump in at the beginner level," he said.

"You need to know how to manipulate the weapons system," Sgt. 1st Class Bustillos said. "Be very proficient in it. Physical fitness is a big [requirement], because you're running and shooting on the range 10 hours a day, five days straight."

National Guard representatives from about half the states have observed the training in New Mexico. Recently, three states assigned 10 instructors to CATC for a year to soak up New Mexico's techniques.

Mr. Rogers, who could see the World Trade Center from his home, was also changed by 9/11: His firefighter brother, Timothy Rogers, was seriously injured in the collapse of one of the World Trade Center towers, which killed 12 of the firefighters in his company. Mr. Rogers now says weapons skills aren't just nice to have, they're essential to America. "We're probably at a greater threat now than we have ever been," he said. "The only way I can contribute is to make sure that some of the people who are going over there reap the benefit of experience to keep them alive and to kill the bad guys."

Page last updated Tue June 12th, 2007 at 10:28