CAMP BLANDING, Fla--Rain pelting down on them didn't dampen the spirits of the New York Army National Guard Soldiers from the 1st Battalion 258th Field Artillery, as they qualified on the M119A2 howitzer here on Friday, March 12.

Despite rain and the low visibility the artillerymen of the battalion's Battery A sent their 105-millimeter rounds four kilometers downrange as they fired this new weapons systems for the first time.

The Soldiers, based in the New York City neighborhood of Jamaica, Queens, and New Windsor, NY, traveled to Camp Blanding on March 5 to conduct two weeks of annual training exercises.

The key element was qualifying all their artillery gun crews on the M119A2, a newer weapon that replaces the battalion's old M102 howitzers.

While the battalion also includes medics, mechanics, communications specialists, and a host of other military occupational specialties, gun crew qualification constitutes the primary mission for the unit's annual training.

"It's the main purpose of being out here in the field," said Sgt. Joe Dedrick, a Poughkeepsie native who serves as an A Battery gunner. "Everything we do all year is building up to us being able to fire rounds."

Dedrick said the weather conditions in Florida -- chilly mornings leading into hot, sunny afternoons -- made for an ideal training environment for the 258th's Soldiers.

"The temperature change is a lot closer to overseas than at Fort Drum (N.Y.) or Fort Dix (N.J.)," he said.

Many of the battalion's Soldiers were firing the M119A2 for the first time, and a team of artillery trainers from Fort Sill, Okla., were on site to guide the troops through each phase of gunnery preparation. Dedrick said they demanded precision from each gun team member.

"Each guy has a precise job to do," he said. "And they (the trainers) are asking us for the exact commands. You have to be precise." Each crew fired six rounds, one for each fire mission they were assigned.

A fire mission begins when a forward observer, usually miles away from the firing battery, identifies a target and contacts the battery's fire direction center. Using precise coordinates, the observer describes the type of target and where it is located.

Soldiers in battery fire direction centers determine what kind of round to use on each target, and where each gun needs to point in order to hit it. This information is relayed to the crews on the gun line, who then move as quickly and precisely as possible -- always being careful to follow safety procedures -- to prepare the ammunition, load and aim their howitzers, and finally fire.

A direct hit on a target -- usually an enemy vehicle -- is noted by the forward observer team and relayed over the radio as "steel on steel."

"When you hear that "steel on steel" come over the radio, and you know that you've done your job, there's just no better feeling in the world," said Dedrick.

"Overall, I'm pleased and impressed with the level of skill that the Soldiers acquired and maintained," said Capt. Joseph Linhart, Battery A commander. "We hope that this will give us a good baseline for us to develop our training plans for the future."

With Battery A's gunnery complete, the battalion planned to conduct gun crew qualifications for Battery B on March 17. Meanwhile, the battalion's Soldiers will spend their time training on other necessary Soldier tasks. They will travel back to New York March 20.

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16