Qualification course hones warrior skills
June 24, 2011
CAMP MACKALL, N.C. - Camp Mackall is a far cry from the manicured streets of Fort Bragg. Sleeping quarters are tight and food is trucked in from the dining facility located a few miles down the road. Soon the days and nights run together because, as convenient as that might be, saving the world isn’t a nine to five job. Oh, if you thought insurgents were your only problem, think again " this is chigger country.
Moss Gill Lake, a short ruck march from Forward Operating Base Freedom, is staging ground for Operation Black Knight " a final tactical exercise for Soldiers of the Military Information Support Operations Qualification Course, one of three special operations branches to arise from the guerrilla battlefields of modern warfare.
For the seven members of Detachment 10 (two officers and five noncommissioned officers), the objective is simple " capture or kill the high value target who’s been recruiting local farmers into God’s Right Arm (a fictional extremist group). A territory dispute initiated a full-blown conflict between the Christian extremist and Muslim role-players in the area of operations.
So, somewhere between the late hours of June 8 and the early morning of June 9, the members of Detachment 10 slip into this scenario on a muggy, North Carolina night.
Crickets and other insects play a chorus that will, most likely, continue long after the last round of ammunition is fired.
Finally a call to surrender breaks the silence. A Soldier broadcasts through the next generation loudspeaker system, the latest improvement to the man pack loudspeaker system. His voice sounds young, much younger than the role-player who’s undertaken the HVT role for tonight’s exercise.
Stationed near a storage container, the burly HVT booms with authority, “I can’t, there’s a curfew.” Fifteen minutes earlier, word came across the radio that this hit will be lethal and the HVT is secretly relieved. (“I gave ‘em h*** the last few days, sure they’d rough me up if I was captured,” he’d say, before launching into a story about some young Joe who took a tree to the head when his buddies tried to carry him out of the woods).
Commands continue to pump through the loudspeaker, persistent despite the protests … you are surrounded by coalition forces, put down your weapons and walk toward us, resistance is futile. “Resistance is futile? What is this, Star Wars?” someone jokes. And then cadre, watching the exercise from beneath a light pole, start the critique " the volume on the loudspeaker is low, are the guys up on the hill? Sounds like it. Did they surround the cabin instead? What if the local game warden walks out the front door, unwittingly caught in the middle of a midnight training exercise.
Rather than field questions from other cadre, Staff Sgt. Theodore Esparza (who oversaw the team’s tactical planning) peers into the darkness of a nearby stand of trees.
Culminating exercise mistakes have been known to happen. Earlier, a team was called to task for failure to perform to standards. And during an earlier exercise, one team requested that materials be translated into French and Djibouti, to the dismay of the role-playing translator (Djibouti’s language is French). But the question of the night is how a team of trained Soldiers, recipients of the finest military training in the world, could botch grid coordinates.
And amid the ruckus of insects and loudspeakers and unruly role players and observers, the Soldiers of Detachment 10 execute the hit. Silently navigating the terrain with night vision goggles, the MISOQC students surround and terminate the weapon-wielding, right-hand man of God’s Right Arm. The loudspeaker, strategically placed on high ground away from the team’s line of approach, had been an effective diversion. Game over.
“I’m proud they did well, I’m enjoying this moment,” said Esparza, one of the newest members of MISOQC cadre, who followed his team’s movements from start to finish.
By phase four of MISOQC, students have already proven a proficiency in language studies (phase one), survivability and integration (phase two) and MISO core training (phase three) including regional analysis, cultural sensitivity and tactical procedures. The classroom portion of phase four is like a live scenario in deployment preparation. As part of the command post exercise, they develop a series of handbills, posters, radio scripts and messages to influence the populace and redirect behavior.
From there, Soldiers transition into a week of field exercises per the fictional Pineland scenario that tests all MISO, Special Forces and civil affairs recruits.
“A lot of work goes into building these guys up to this point, phase by phase, in the course,” said Sgt. 1st Class Nick Skildum, MISOQC cadre. “It’s definitely not an area where we can just take anybody off the street and put them here,” he added.
As part of the special operations community, MISO Soldiers often embed with Special Forces operational detachment alpha teams. As a result, their military information careers can be just as demanding and dangerous.
On the night of June 3, troops executed an airborne insertion near Camp Mackall, then rucked to Forward Operating Base Freedom to begin the CULEX. With little time for rest and recuperation, students settled into their tents before an intense, multi-day exercise that foreshadowed life as a PSYOP Soldier. Cadre watched over them like hawks, assessing influential operations skills and leader/population engagements. In the fourth phase of MISOQC, performance grades count but perfection isn’t a requirement " learning from mistakes is just as important as avoiding them.
Seasoned role players interacted with the 87 students, mostly tagged as active-duty officers and noncommissioned officers. Strengthening the coalition forces team were six sister service officers, six allied officers and 17 United States Army Reserve officers, who also participated in Operation Certain Trust (the field culmination exercise).
“We have military information support teams that work in embassies across the world " really, our tactical mission is not nearly as large as our regional mission,” said Skildum. As part of the Camp Mackall CULEX, student officers visited a ‘foreign’ embassy where they met with ambassador aides, regional security officers, public affairs specialists and other embassy staff.
“They have to sit down and begin to develop overall programs and plans (as) to how to support the United States government goals.” said Skildum.
(Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part series. See next week’s Paraglide for part two.)