Digging in: 864th Engineers bring back 'old way of training'
February 14, 2012
JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. (Feb. 14, 2012) -- As 1st Sgt. Tauese Tupua strolled through an open stretch of training area Feb. 10 during a recent field exercise with his battalion, he summed up in his own words the near future of Army operations.
"The days of riding around in mine-resistant, ambush protected vehicles are coming to an end," he said.
And his proof lay just feet from him in the form of a deeply and immaculately dug trench, shrouded in thick fir tree branches: a traditional foxhole the likes of which many of today's Soldiers see in basic training and never again.
But now, training for the 864th Engineer Battalion is, as Tupua says, going with the rest of the Army, back to the basics -- back to the old way of doing things and away from the counter-insurgency fight with which it has grown so familiar.
"We've been focusing the last 10 years on the Global War on Terror," said Tupua, first sergeant for the 617th Engineer Company, an 864th Engineer Battalion asset. "The days of Soldiers actually getting on the ground, fighting force-on-force, digging a fighting position to standard -- we kind of lost that in the Army."
But during the exercise, which lasted from Feb. 3 to Feb. 13 and brought back more shooting, more live-fire exercises, more ground movement and more time spent roughing it in the elements, that all changed.
"Previous exercises we were worrying about convoy briefings, moving in convoys and how to react to an improvised explosive device," said Tupua, a native of American Samoa. "That's how we were fighting the last 10 years."
"But it's going away," he said. "Iraq is shut down and Afghanistan is the next to shut down. So, we're going back to force on force."
Over the 10 days the battalion spent in the field, its engineers grew more familiar with setting up defensive base camps in preparation for any type of future enemy, reacting to enemy contact and protecting themselves while simultaneously performing their tasks as horizontal construction engineers.
Wherever the companies moved, their Soldiers pulled round-the-clock perimeter security, dug fighting positions and remained vigilant and ready for an attack, shifting their training focus more toward infantry-style ground tactics than ever before.
"The whole goal is to establish a defense -- to be able to defend yourself when there's nobody there for you," Tupua said. "The way we fight (now), we're always depending on the infantry to secure us."
Spc. Anthony Reed, who spent nearly two days' time constructing a triangulation of foxhole fighting positions with a few of his fellow Soldiers, has been in Tupua's company three years.
He can recall training in the past on convoy operations and reaction to improvised explosive devices, or IEDs -- skills that more resembled the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"It was all geared more toward the war now, and that's what everyone's used to and we trained on as soon as I came in, up until now," said Reed, a heavy equipment operator.
"We usually don't dig anything quite like this," he said, looking down at the muddy floor of his nearly-four-foot-deep foxhole and standing beside a tripod-mounted M4 rifle. "And we usually pull guard but it's not as intense as it is now. It's a lot harder training."
He said he's spent more time shooting and more time at ranges. He's been outside in the weather longer and he's stood guard on longer shifts.
But that, he said, is what he expected -- a training scenario more reminiscent of his basic training days than anything else.
"I love it," he said. "It's a lot like how I pictured the Army would be."
Capt. Christopher Pevey, commander of the 557th Engineer Company, which also falls under the 864th Eng. Bn., said this new, more tactical training that is forcing the engineers to develop a well-rounded self-sufficiency, comes on the tails of new Army doctrine.
Its new guidebook, called Army Doctrine Publication 3-0, uses the term unified land operations in its calling for units to prepare themselves tactically to seize, hold and secure plots of land while gaining the upper hand in conflict with a foreign enemy.
"Traditionally, engineers are not land holders," Pevey said as his platoons ran through dismounted and mounted live-fire exercises. "They're not given a piece of land to go and do patrols on."
But Pevey added that, in the event his Soldiers should be called to action against a new enemy, they would, as horizontal engineers, have to lay down roadways and routes for maneuver forces -- infantrymen and tankers.
He explained that, quite simply, they're training for the unexpected.
"Did we really know 10 years ago that we'd be in Afghanistan and Iraq?" he said, adding that the Army could just as quickly find itself in another conflict at any time.
Not far away, on the other end of Joint Base Lewis McChord's sprawling training grounds from Reed's defensive fighting hole, which blends quite naturally with the surrounding foliage, Spc. Brandon Dubois, a team leader with Reed's company, waits in a hole of his own.
His M4 rifle rested on a wall of turned up dirt -- some of his team members a few-hundred feet behind him leveling out the ground with bulldozers to build up a small base camp -- Dubois relishes the moment.
"This stuff just keeps me motivated," he says with a smirk. "I like how it's going back to the old Soldier tactics."
In his 2 ½ years with the company, Dubois has been to the field several times. And while this time is different in many ways, he's just savoring the simple things.
"I'm in a dirt hole this time, and it's actually a lot more fun," he said. "We're back to basic Soldier needs, where you're going to be in a trench pulling security and making sure everything's safe."
Meanwhile, several of Dubois fellow Soldiers and a few sergeants are sitting, laying and kneeling behind berms, in dug out holes like his, or surrounded by high grass and shrubs, they're weapons ready and eyes scanning the nearby tree line for movement.
They're engineers by trade, but out here, in a clearing of thick woods -- wet and soiled but never happier -- the "always a Soldier first" sentiment is flourishing, even if just for a brief time.