A day in the life of an infantry platoon
May 30, 2008
By Don Kramer
FORT LEWIS, Wash. - The life of an infantry lieutenant in 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division is tough enough without unexpected fire fights, mayors of Iraqi villages screaming in your face, insurgents lurking in buildings with a cache of mortar rounds stashed close by, bleeding, one-armed villagers rushing at you begging for medical aid and angry mobs growing more restless by the minute at the mere presence of your platoon.
Throw in a suicide bomber and you have what Lt. Col. Adam Rocke, commander of 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment called "a day in the life of (an infantry platoon in) Iraq."
First Lieutenant James Small, the 3rd Platoon leader, in A Company, had begun dealing with all of them within 15 minutes of arriving in Leschi Town May 20 as part of an intense situational training exercise, requiring him to simultaneously act, react and interact with Iraqi villagers.
"When we got out there they threw pretty much everything they had at us," Small said. "What you expect is never what they threw at us. I went into a village thinking this is the only reason I'm going to be here. When I left, eight other things had happened and I had to control all of those other things."
The set of scenarios comprised only the middle piece of three training events for the West Point-trained officer and his platoon.
Rocke, his company commanders and battalion training staff layered realistic detail into a daylong scenario that built in intensity, starting with a morning meeting with a water-treatment-plant manager who had been strong-armed by al-Qaida. Through an interpreter, Small learned of the possible presence of high-value targets in the village, triggering the platoon's afternoon arrival and search of the village. The pair were part of a group of 13 Arabic-speaking contractors who functioned as village leaders, interpreters and insurgents.
All aspects of the battalion were used to support the multifaceted operation. The crews of the Mobile Gun System-Strykers rolled up to the outskirts of the village to provide security, fire direction teams plotted targets and medics treated casualties throughout the mission. Interrogations of the prisoners taken in the village search led to the culmination of the day's events - a night raid.
"This is really our first attempt at platoon collective training," Rocke said, who drew from his experience on 3rd Bde., 2nd Inf. training-and-operations staff, two tours in Iraq and seven years in 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment to design the exercise.
It was also the most intense environment in which Small had worked with his platoon sergeant of four months, Sgt. 1st Class Doug Hale. The number of simultaneous incidents required them to work closely as a leadership team.
"A lot of these guys are experienced," Rocke said. "The platoon sergeant has two tours in Iraq. It's great that you can see him coaching this young platoon leader on what to do and not do."
The exercise also allowed subordinate leaders to stand out. One of Small's squad leaders, Staff Sgt. Ramon Nunez, picked a villager out of the crowd whose hand was suspiciously tucked into his shirt under his arm. Nunez escorted him away from the crowd to further search him when the villager shouted "Allah hu akhbar" and detonated a suicide vest.
Nunez reflexively bear hugged the terrorist, taking him to the ground as the explosion covered them both with talcum powder.
"That was a leader who knew his environment," Rocke said. "His actions probably saved four or five lives. That's heads up."
Even in a training environment, Rocke commended Nunez for his selfless act and presented him a coin at the after-action review, after which the platoon refitted and went out again.
"In the evening they received another mission that a HVT, an (anti-Iraq forces) leader is in a building and they conducted a night raid," Capt. Dan Threlkeld, 2nd Bn., 3rd Inf. Div. forward support officer said, "a kinetic operation, force on force, a whole actual typical urban raid. By the end of the day this platoon (was) smoked."
Afterward, Small took time to reflect on the platoon's performance as well as his own.
"My main concern, no matter what, was the safety of my guys," the native Virginian said. "I tried to employ them, first and foremost, to clear the village and secondly to figure out what the crowd was so hostile about. Third, (we were) trying to get in and out as quickly as possible while still completing the mission."
He said his concern for his platoon's safety, however, led to his taking focus off the small ammunition cache his men found, securing the building but losing accountability for mortar rounds and slowing the mission. The operation took about an hour from the time the platoon's first Strykers rolled into the village at 4:30 p.m.
One agenda of the rigorous exercise, Rocke said, was to stress young leaders, echoing the Army dictum that the time to make mistakes is in training, to avoid them in combat.
Third platoon did a number of things well, Small said.
"We did a good job of getting into that village quickly, ... neutralizing the enemy," he said. "The fire fight wasn't as long and drawn out as it could have been. We did a good job of initially clearing the village."
Small gave himself mixed reviews on working with local leaders and the crowd.
"I did a good job, I guess, of initially calming the crowd, but ... when the crowd started getting more hostile, I could have been a little more aggressive with them," Small said. "I was still trying to be the diplomat. At that point, I should have turned around and said, 'Now I'm the infantry platoon.' Now I know next time."
The lieutenant had ample opportunity for feedback. In addition observer/controllers, his company commander, Capt. Jonathan Fursman, Rocke and many members of the battalion staff were also on hand.
Threlkeld said the training plan calls for continuing realistic scenarios, culminating in live-fire exercises in late June and more in Yakima in July.
For 2-3 Inf., the normal reset-regeneration process has been accelerated by its designation as an I Corps quick-reaction force, turning up an already aggressive 3rd Brigade training schedule to warp speed.
"Part of (I Corps commanding general, Lt.) Gen. (Charles H.) Jacoby's guidance is 'Be ready on July 15 - be deployable anywhere within 72 hours,'" Threlkeld said. "That's the guidance that was given us."
Don Kramer is a reporter with the Fort Lewis Northwest Guardian.