JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. - In an unpolished, stripped-down room, U.S. Army soldiers are trying to put together a puzzle.

They already know what the finished picture is supposed to look like - a tenacious and resourceful staff of soldiers, in charge of running a field artillery headquarters. They need to figure out how the pieces, in this case - the soldiers themselves, connect; which is a demanding venture.

In preparation for their participation in the annual training exercise, Ulchi Freedom Guardian, soldiers with Headquarters and Headquarters Battery, 17th Fires Brigade, conducted a staff exercise, or staffex, at the Mission Command Training Complex, June 4 through 5, to refine how they fit into the big picture of UFG operations.

"What the staffex does, first of all it gets us focused on UFG, it takes us away from the day to day stuff and puts us here so that we're focused," said Capt. Christopher R. Smith, a Green Bay, Wisc., native, and brigade fire support coordinator with HHB, 17th Fires Bde.

During the staffex, the staff as a whole becomes familiar with the terrain and other factors of the fictitious training scenario, then each section determines how those aspects are going to affect their operations, Smith said.

"You're refining the way you do things, so you're constantly improving yourself, you're improving your shop, you're improving the way the brigade functions as a whole," Smith explained.

While the brigade receives an order from a higher headquarters for I Corps training exercises, each staff section is responsible for turning their task into a detailed plan, which is where soldiers are really able to open up with critical thinking, said Sgt. 1st Class David K. Costantini, a brigade operations non-commissioned officer with HHB, 17th Fires Bde.

For example, a section might have a seemingly simple, one-sentence order from a higher-level, such as 'requisition movement of a battalion from one operating base to another.'

"There's a lot of implied tasks in that sentence," Costantini said.

That one-sentence order may tell the logistics section what they need to do, but overseeing what supplies are needed, what vehicles are needed and determining other logistics details in order to requisition movement can become a hefty project, he said.

Costantini compared it to artillerymen adjusting for fire, where artillery sections use mathematics and the process of elimination to pinpoint their target. Staff sections have to adjust the details of their orders by asking 'what if' questions that help them ensure preparedness for any situation that might arise.

This kind of training allows each section to shape and paint their piece of the puzzle, and brings them together to connect.

For 2nd Lt. Richard Brantley, a Norfolk, Conn., native, and brigade human resources officer with HHB, 17th Fires Bde., the staffex puts focus on necessary skills that his section doesn't always get to practice. In a garrison environment, Brantley's section is busy with tasks like writing official awards, updating Soldier information and helping new Soldiers process into the unit.

The staffex gives Brantley time to plan how his section is going to manage personnel as they would in a deployed environment, and ultimately get his piece of the puzzle ready to place in the big picture of a fully functional field artillery headquarters when the time comes.

"We really have to be on top of our game to make sure that we have all the Soldiers that we need to do the mission, because if we don't, we're not going to be able to use any of the guns, and it all falls apart," Brantley explained.

While polishing his piece of the puzzle, Brantley considers how his section fits into the big picture.

"When you look at the [human resources] piece, we are the grease in the engine -- we aren't putting fire on the enemy, but we're giving you the people to do that," Brantley said.

"We're not on the outside of the puzzle, where you have the artillery pieces, we're right in the middle, and without us in there the puzzle is not complete," he added.

Understanding how the staff connects and functions together is an important step in any operation, and according to Smith, it's one that his battery enjoys training for.

"It's good anytime we can get out of the day to day and do some operational stuff, tactical and operational training is always beneficial to us," Smith said. "We like the opportunities...even if it's not 100 percent successful, we get some good training out of it, learn where we need to work and what we need to do to make ourselves better."