By Master Sgt. Gail Braymen, First Army Public AffairsAugust 6, 2014
FORT McCOY, Wis. -- With the continuing withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, deployments for Army National Guard and Reserve Soldiers have become less of a certainty and more of a rarity.
Apart from the obvious downside of an overseas tour -- physical and mental hardships, and separation from Family, school and work -- there's also an upside: real-world application of Soldier skills, team and leader development, and the incorporation of many Army specialties into one mission.
That's why Iowa Army National Guard infantryman Staff Sgt. Jason Timler was "pretty excited" when he heard his unit would be coming here for annual training, along with engineers, forward observers, medics, mortarmen, battalion scouts, and Soldiers with heavy weapons on Humvees.
"Usually, we don't get to work with all these elements outside a deployment," said Timler, a resident of Waterloo, Iowa, and a squad leader in 3rd Platoon, Company C, 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division from Oelwein. "Even annual training in the past hasn't gotten together all these different elements. This is a huge deal for us."
The 2nd BCT is spending about three weeks at Fort McCoy this summer, going through an exportable combat training capability exercise designed to test the functions and teamwork of individual platoons, then companies and battalions. Finally, all the Soldiers will come together for a seven-day "Charging Bull" exercise that will challenge units with company- and battalion-level air assault missions and test the brigade as a whole. This year's annual training will help prepare the brigade for its 2015 rotation in the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La.
"The first half of our annual training is focusing on platoon development. We're running offensive and defensive missions in an effort to identify shortcomings, and then improve those as we progress throughout our AT," said Lt. Col. David Nixon, commander of 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Regiment.
Timler's company last returned from a deployment -- to Afghanistan -- in 2011. Three years later, there are a lot of new faces in his platoon.
While most of the platoon's core leaders have at least one combat tour under their belts, none of the corporals, specialists or privates have ever deployed.
"This is an opportunity for the new guys who haven't deployed to see the big picture," said Pfc. Brian Brase, a 3rd Platoon member from Ankeny, Iowa. "When we come and do something like this, we get to see how it all comes together. It instills confidence in the 'joes' who haven't deployed and lets them gain trust in their leadership."
Guiding the National Guard Soldiers through the XCTC exercise are nearly 200 First Army observer coach/trainers and a team of National Guard OC/Ts.
Having a multicomponent OC/T package drawn from units nationwide helps make this XCTC exercise unique, said Col. Shawn Klawunder, commander of 181st Infantry Brigade, Division West, First Army, which is hosting the XCTC exercise at its home station of Fort McCoy. "From throughout Division West, most of the brigades are supporting this exercise, as well as National Guard, in terms of OC/T support. So it's kind of a team of teams, on the OC/T side."
The 2nd BCT Soldiers have a steep learning curve during the exercise, according to Klawunder.
"It's not that we're directly teaching them, but we're assisting them," Klawunder said. "We'll point out some of the stuff that they may be rusty on. We'll point out some of the stuff that they may not be able to see themselves."
The Soldiers of 2nd Platoon, Company A, 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, hit the ground running at Fort McCoy with just "little speed bumps," said Sgt. 1st Class Allen Kirkland, an OC/T with 1-310th Infantry Battalion, 181st Infantry Brigade, and native of Los Angeles, Calif.
"It's like ironing out the kinks in an old, wrinkled-up shirt," Kirkland said. "They were able to get that worked out, and their second iteration, they knocked out better. Their third iteration, which was live fire, they're pretty much almost flawless."
Kirkland said his role as an OC/T is to advise and "fine-tune" the platoon.
"I got my toolbag," Kirkland said. "I show them what tools I have, they grab what they want, and they start building what they need to do."
Company A's 2nd Platoon, with 22 Soldiers, is just half the size of a typical infantry platoon.
"They've already taken that into consideration for their planning process and how they're going to set up [their defensive position]," Kirkland noted. "[They have a] very smart, eager platoon leader. They got a real strong, solid platoon sergeant, some new squad leaders, but they're hungry, they're ready to work, so I'm very impressed at how they're coming about right now."
First Army is providing "excellent support," Nixon said. "They're providing professional, seasoned OC/Ts to help our Soldiers continue to improve, in order that we learn from our mistakes and improve every day. The Soldiers are motivated; they're working hard. We're a learning organization, and they're learning and improving every day."
The XCTC exercise is good for both leaders and new Soldiers, said Command Sgt. Maj. Joedy Dennis, command sergeant major of 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Regiment.
"The ranks are filled with a lot of new Soldiers, a lot of young Soldiers," Dennis said. "The leaders that we have in place now are newly promoted leaders. They may have been lower enlisted Soldiers on deployment, but now they're team leaders, squad leaders, and they're learning the leadership skills and values of leadership, along with mentoring and teaching their experiences."
Not only are the exercise OC/Ts multicomponent, so are the troops acting as opposing forces: the 5th Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment, is an active duty unit from Fort Riley, Kansas; the 2nd Battalion, 361st Regiment, is an Army Reserve unit from South Dakota; and the 32nd Infantry Division is a Wisconsin Army National Guard unit. Having OPFOR that spans all three Army components is "pretty amazing," Klawunder said.
"There are strengths that the active component brings, as well as the reserve component, and different perspectives," Klawunder explained.
The 181st Infantry Brigade started working with the 2nd BCT almost a year to prepare for the XCTC exercise and, in the coming year, the 181st will continue to support the 2nd BCT's preparation for its JRTC rotation with doctrinal training, situational training exercises and OC/T support. "That partnership helps," Klawunder said, "because, as the unit's leadership grows to trust us, we're just additional eyes and can see things from a different perspective, maybe."
First Army, in accordance with Title 11 and Army Total Force Policy, partners with United States Army Reserve and Army National Guard leadership to advise, assist and train reserve component formations to achieve Army Force Generation-directed readiness requirements during both pre- and post-mobilization through multicomponent integrated collective training, enabling Forces Command to provide combatant commanders trained and ready forces in support of worldwide requirements.