By Sgt. Nicole SmartFebruary 19, 2014
CATOOSA, Ga. (Feb. 19, 2014) -- For Soldiers of Tennessee National Guard's 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment, the past three months were split between virtual and field training environments at the Volunteer Training Site-Catoosa, here.
They learned to navigate their new equipment and combine their vast pool of knowledge to teach each other to lead.
The unit recently received upgraded vehicles, new Long Range Advanced Scout Surveillance Systems, or LRASSS, weapons systems and a virtual training center.
First Lt. Wade Harris, executive officer for the 278th's L Troop, said his regiment has a reputation for being squared-away, and they were honored to receive the state-of-the-art equipment. In appreciation, they promptly sent their Soldiers to school to learn how to operate their new equipment and began planning a training program that would put their knowledge to the best test, an actual field mission where they could get hands-on experience.
After a year of planning, the training program came to fruition over three frigid winter weekends. Soldiers split their time between warm simulators and battling the elements, along with their enemies. The conditions were brutal. The terrain was rocky. The trails were tight, and the temperature remained below 10 degrees during both day and night reconnaissance missions.
As the convoy made their way through the narrow winding woods of the Catoosa training site, everyone maintained a protective posture, moving slowly and steadily. They spotted wild turkeys in the wood line instead of insurgents, and downed trees instead of improvised explosive devices. Everything was treated as if it were a warning sign; they took no chances.
"Nobody will be in front of us except bad guys," said 1st Sgt. Donald Farley, L Troop senior enlisted adviser, as he observed his troop's movement. "Our mission is to get in without being seen, destroy things without firing our weapons, and get out."
Farley said this was an opportunity to gauge his Soldiers' abilities and to uncover specific training needs.
"Seventy-five percent of the Soldiers are new to the unit," he said.
The operation began riddled with novice mistakes -- wrong turns, misreading of maps and extra radio chatter -- but it didn't take long for Farley to smile as he experienced his Soldiers learning from their mistakes. It's just what he expected.
"They are going to make mistakes, and this is the place to do it," Farley said. "Mistakes made here can be corrected. Mistakes down range lead to people getting hurt, and that's not what we want."
He was patient with his troops as they learned through trial and error. He followed the convoy in his humvee, weaving in and out as they navigated the training route -- complete with obstacles and faux insurgent attacks. He checked their maps when they strayed off course and pulled information out of them over the radio when reports were slim.
While one platoon was barreling through rough terrain and battling the cold, another platoon occupied unsuspecting trailers immersed in a simulated environment. The war game, designed and controlled by their command team, gave the commander instant feedback on his team's actions and gave the Soldiers experience with their new equipment.
Master gunner Staff Sgt. Michael Metcalf explained the benefit of pairing virtual and field training. Practice in the simulators before the field allows Soldiers to focus on the mission and not on operating the equipment.
"There are lots of switches and buttons," he said. "We want them to get experience fighting with the Bradley in here so when they are out in the field they can take the fight to the enemy."
Another advantage of pairing the virtual training with field training is cost and space savings.
"We don't have access to land large enough to do a full maneuver. This gives us the ability to create that environment," said 1st Lt. Brad McMahan, Tennessee Army National Guard training specialist. "There is never a substitute for live training, but spending time in a virtual training environment allows us to be more efficient during the high-cost training."
He proudly displayed features, reports and a birds-eye view of the war-game in progress as he explained that while Tennessee doesn't have enough space to take a reconnaissance platoon out and perform a full mission, they were able to build out a full-scale training area digitally, which is also customizable.
"We created a place to facilitate the rehearsal, identifying tactical tasks that can be evaluated in simulation, and a tool to allow the commander to evaluate their progress and accomplishments," he said.
The positive ripple effect created by the investment in training and equipment was visible in more places than the reports provided to the commander. It showed on the soldiers' chapped, red faces.
"We have a good group of guys. They are very motivated, even in these conditions," Harris said. "They take the training seriously, and they should. You never know when you'll be called."
As a result of this training, when the 278th gets that call, they will be ready.