New York National Guard Soldiers in South Africa
New York National Guardsmen visit with a tame cheetah at a South African game preserve during their recent trip there for the South African National Defense Force 2011 Regional Combat Rifle Competition. Top row, left to right: Spc. Jason Grossman, Spc.

BLOEMFONTEIN, South Africa, May 18, 2011 -- New York Army National Guard troops scored friendships and more at the South African National Defense Force 2011 Regional Combat Rifle Competition this month.

A team of eight New York National Guard Soldiers competed against Soldiers and police officers from South Africa, Great Britain and New Zealand in Bloemfontein, South Africa, May 2-8, 2011. Under the New York and Republic of South Africa State Partnership Program, New York National Guardsmen have been working with the South African National Defense Force, or SANDF, in a variety of events, including safety, aviation and combat skills training exercises.

Though their top Soldier finished 103rd out of 274 competitors and the team came in fourth out of four in the team matches, the trip strengthened the state's partnership with the South Africans, said Staff Sgt. Dennis Rick, the team's assistant noncommissioned officer-in-charge. Team members got a chance to fire the SANDF-issue R4, 5.56 mm rifle; test their marksmanship skills in different combat scenarios; and trade information on tactics and techniques with a diverse, talented pool of Soldiers and police officers, he added.

"I had a great time," said Spc. Matthew Melendez, of New York City. "I love to compete, and I made friends with a lot of people."

Though the 18-hour flight was the most physically challenging part of the trip, they had to adjust to the lighter bullets used in the competition, he said.

"We were all in pretty good shape going in," Melendez said. "It took us a couple of days to get used to the ballistics of that round."

They also had to learn how to shoot the R4 instead of the American M-4 or M-16A2, said Spc. Masami Yamakado, also of New York City.

"It's a different weapon system entirely," Yamakado said. However, it was fun to shoot the weapon, which never malfunctioned, he recalled.

Melendez agreed, adding that they might be called on one day to use the R4 or a rifle like it.

"That alone was huge," he said. "Just familiarizing myself with it helped a ton." He was very impressed by the marksmanship skills of the South African personnel, he added.

The competition consisted of various types and styles of shooting: including a counter-terrorism match with targets at 200 meters and a close-quarters battle match with targets at 25, 50, 75 and 100 meters, Rick said. Shooters had to fire from prone, sitting and standing positions, he added.

"This is excellent training," Rick said during the competition. "We're intermingling with soldiers from other countries, and learning how they shoot," he said. The team also attended a mixer with the other competitors, and presented plaques commemorating the match to the South Africans, he added.

Like the other Soldiers, Sgt. Justin Vonderheyde enjoyed working with the South African Soldiers. They made friends and exchanged ideas easily, he recalled.

"They were eager to learn anything we had to teach, and we were the same way," said Vonderheyde, of Middletown, N.Y.

Along with tips on basic Soldier tasks, they learned tricks to firing the R4 and other things, like how to craft a notched stick to tally the rounds remaining in a rifle magazine, Yamakado said. They also shared the work load with the South African personnel, including moving targets on the range, he added.

"Working with different forces, you get to learn all kinds of new things," he reflected. "We got to know each other very well, and we made very good friends."

Vonderheyde said he also learned a great deal from his fellow sniper-trained team members.

"I watched them teach the South Africans quite a bit," Vonderheyde said. "They helped me a lot, and they helped the South Africans too."

The Soldiers taught him and others more advanced shooting, spotting and zeroing techniques, said Vonderheyde, who is a team leader in the 2nd Battalion, 108th Infantry. He's been an infantryman for about a decade, he reflected.

"I've been shooting for a long time, but they taught me things I didn't know," Vonderheyde said.

The country of South Africa also left a deep impression on the New York Soldiers. They saw giraffe, antelope and zebras everywhere -- including near their hotel -- calmly walking around as deer do in New York state, Yamakado said.

"I really felt like I was in Africa," he said.

Despite the hectic competition schedule, they had a chance to visit a game preserve, where they saw more wildlife and took in the South African landscape, Melendez said.

"It was absolutely beautiful," he said. "It's a very peaceful country."

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