FORT HUNTER LIGGETT, Calif. - As they wait for a British C-130 cargo plane to land on the nearby airstrip, three Army Reserve firefighters wait near their firetruck and practice a rapid equipment drill. Suiting up in their protective suits and masks takes them less than a minute. The plane that's about to land carried British paratroopers to drop onto landing zones in Fort Hunter Liggett's rugged terrain. Operating here is good practice for the pilots and paratroopers, and the landings and takeoffs on the dusty airstrip can be challenging and dangerous. It's also a rare opportunity for the firefighters who stand ready to respond a few hundred yards away.

"Every time we have a bird coming in, we're all standing by," said Staff Sgt. Andrew Heydon, from Fountain Valley, Calif., and a team chief for the 702nd Engineer Detachment. He and 26 other Reserve Firefighters work alongside the Fort Hunter Liggett Fire Department's civilian firefighters. to ensure the flights land and take off safely during the Combat Support Training Exercise taking place here during April.

For firefighters in the Army Reserve, staying ready and relevant for the battlefield can be a challenge. For these members of the 163rd Ordnance Company from Tustin, Calif., the three-week exercise is a chance to get hands-on experience doing a real-world mission. Taking part in an exercise that simulates deploying overseas, they work alongside other Army and Department of Defense civilian firefighters, something they might not get to do outside of a real deployment.

Heydon, who is a DOD firefighter in his civilian life, said exercises like these take Soldiers far beyond what they learn in the schoolhouse or in their home units. They get the chance not only to prepare for combat deployments, but to further their civilian careers as well.

"A lot of these guys are trying to become firefighters," said Heydon. "They're trying to get a full-time, professional job. It gives them the opportunity to actually be a firefighter for three weeks, instead of just getting to do it every now and then."

Sgt. Kristopher Ayers, a team chief with the 324th Engineer Detachment, recalled that five years ago during the CSTX, he and his soldiers helped the post fire department put out a wildfire. Since then, his team has deployed to Afghanistan. In a built-up theater like Afghanistan, he said, civilian contractors do most of that work, so exercises like this are a Reserve soldier's best opportunity to perform a real-world mission.

"It's a good chance to get all these units together, since we all get deployed together," he said.

Spc. Zachariah Levotch, a firefighter with the 163rd, is a full-time emergency room technician and part-time firefighter in San Bernardino, Calif. He said exercises like this have enhanced his civilian job skills and furthered his military career.

"I knew I wanted to be a firefighter," said Levotch. "I knew that through military service and the training through the DOD Fire Academy I would definitely have a much greater opportunity to one day being hired. The Army Reserve has greatly helped me in advancing my career in the fire service."

Younger soldiers, like Spc. Michael J. Berry from St. Louis, Mo., with the 324th Eng. Det. in Granite City, Ill., just appreciates the chance to put their training to use and work with a large team of fellow firefighters.

"I love working with my team because not only do I get to learn from what they know, but you feed off of that, and it helps me become a better person and a better firefighter," said Berry.

"When you're a firefighter, it's not just a position. It's a team effort."


Fort Hunter Liggett is the largest installation in the Army Reserve, with more than 160,000 acres of mountains, valleys, rivers, plains and forests. It provides ideal maneuver areas and state of the art training facilities.

The 91st Training Division, headquartered at Fort Hunter Liggett, trains and assesses Army Reserve units, and supports training for joint, combined and active Army forces. Thousands of Soldiers and dozens of units from around the country are participating in the April Combat Support Training Exercise, which provides realistic training for military maneuvers and tactics such as base security, convoy operations and battle reaction drills during simulated enemy attacks. The exercise provides realistic training to units to successfully meet the challenges of an extended and integrated battlefield.