Taking the high ground
October 31, 2011
Nobody appreciates more than Darren Bean just how important it is to own the high ground on the battlefield.
Bean, who retired in 2007 as sergeant major of the U.S. Army Mountain Warfare School in Jericho, Vt., spent most of his 23-year military career training Soldiers to fight at high altitudes.
"I saw this opportunity and just thought it was pretty neat," said Bean, "being in the military and (getting) to rock climb, ski and ice climb."
Soon after he took off the uniform, Bean came to the Natick Soldier Systems Center, where he went to work for Product Manager Soldier Clothing and Individual Equipment as the project manager for mountaineering equipment. He has spent the last 4 ½ years developing mountaineering kits for the Army, Special Forces and Marines.
At the same time he was working on equipment designed to help them, service members were contending with the hostile, mountainous regions of Afghanistan. He has watched that conflict unfold with great interest.
"You can't fight from below," Bean said. "That's been how it's gone a lot over there, is we've fought them from below.
"We need to have those observation posts and combat outposts and stuff like that up on the high ground. And sometimes the high ground takes mountaineering equipment to get to, or it gives you a different avenue of approach."
Bean noted that after-action reviews supported the notion that the appropriate equipment was needed to make that happen.
"There has been feedback from organizations, from brigade commanders, brigade sergeants major, who have specifically said, 'If we had this equipment, it would have been a game-changer,'" Bean said.
According to Bean, the Army had developed the Special Operations Forces Mountaineer Equipment Set in the mid 1980s. Most often, however, units simply bought whatever gear they thought they needed. Standardization and interoperability didn't exist.
At Natick, Bean went right to work figuring out what infantry brigade combat teams did and didn't need. The results were the High-Angle Mountaineering Kit, the Assault Climber Team Kit, and the Snow and Ice Mobility Kit.
"So we've gone through all the phases of (research and development), test evaluation, limited user (evaluations), figuring out exactly what the Army does need to operate in the mountains," Bean said. "We haven't fielded yet. We'll be fielding -- with any luck -- starting the second quarter of this (fiscal year).
"Most units are only going to be using the basic kit, the high-angle mountaineering kit, with a few assault climber kits, because they don't have the training yet."
Bean, who climbed Mount McKinley in 1993, continues to work closely with the Mountain Warfare School and the 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team of the Vermont National Guard.
"They do a lot of my testing for me," Bean said. "I'm still on the phone with them once a week or so.
"We didn't do it in a vacuum. (We're) constantly talking with the mountain school, constantly talking with the guys in the brigade."
Major John Guyette, executive officer of the Army Mountain Warfare School, said that Bean's background made him the "perfect person" for the job he does at Natick.
"His constant communication with AMWS and the team of instructors maintain his knowledge on instruction and equipment and what the force is requesting based on lessons learned in the current war fight around the globe," Guyette said. "Lessons learned come in from all areas of conflict, not just Afghanistan.
"AMWS also gains from his contact and communication by ensuring AMWS hears from the field that is contacting him with recommendations or questions on how military mountaineering and cold-weather environments are affecting the force."
According to Bean, technology has changed mountaineering equipment dramatically since the Army produced its first kits a quarter-century ago.
"In the last few years, mountaineering equipment is definitely getting lighter, and things are starting to do more than one thing," Bean said. "In any environment as a Soldier, you want whatever it is that you have to be able to do more than one thing. Some of the mountaineering gear has done that."
Bean had to resist the temptation to add too much to the kits.
"There are numerous other items out there we could have put in the kit," Bean said. "We really tried to pare it down and make them be able to use it. You give me a hundred pounds of stuff -- it doesn't matter how good it is -- it's a hundred pounds of stuff. Give me five pounds of stuff, and I can use that.
"We're trying to keep the stuff on a basic level. Soldiers are tougher on gear, for sure, because the environment that they operate in is very austere and nasty. So they need a little bit beefier, stronger type thing."
After the kits have been fielded, Bean will hit the road for another round of evaluations.
"We'll see what we need to improve on once the kits get into the system," Bean said. "I think we have plenty of wiggle room, once we start getting feedback, to change whatever's necessary."
All with the goal of securing that high ground.
"The mountaineering community is definitely in my blood," Bean said. "It's all I've done. I'm a firm believer in it."