FORT IRWIN, Calif. - U.S. Army Reserve units usually only attend one extended combat training event each year. This year, one unit was able to participate in two.
The 441st Engineer Company, route clearance, attended Combat Support Training Exercise 14-02 in May at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin. Three months later, some of the Soldiers volunteered to attend another training event, National Training Center rotation 14-09 at Fort Irwin, California Aug. 2 to 22.
The 441st were alerted to deploy to Afghanistan in October. They were able to schedule training for a small element at NTC for additional training in preparation for their deployment. The unit was removed from the deployment, but a platoon element was still able to attend the training.
"National Training Center! You're not going to get anything equivalent in the U.S," said U.S. Army Reserve Sgt. 1st Class Timothy Waters, 441st Engineer Company, platoon sergeant from Harrison, Arkansas. "We got off-ramped, but we still got to keep the mission to go to NTC. Essentially we got two [annual training missions] and then some of the guys did too. There are a few who didn't go to CSTX so they came here with me."
Water said it was very important to him for the unit to keep the mission, so he worked on making sure he had the personnel for the training.
"Most of them volunteered to come out here. Some we persuaded to come out here," he said. "You have the mission and don't want to miss out on the training. So, we had to find the selling points: you're not going to find any better type of training for your job except at the National Training Center."
A majority of the Soldiers volunteered for the mission. According to Waters, this was because they saw the training value.
"Most of the volunteers came for more experience. There is a lot of inexperience with a lot of the younger guys," he said. "I have four Soldiers who just got out of basic training, [Advanced Individual Training] this year who didn't have to come, but they wanted to get a jump on learning how route clearance operates because they just don't get that at basic training or AIT."
One of the volunteers said he just wanted to change up his training experience.
"I wanted to see what it was like because I had heard so much about NTC," said U.S. Army Reserve Spc. Matthew Cooper, Field Maintenance Platoon, 441st Engineer Company, mechanic and vehicle recovery specialist, from Brighton, Tennessee. "You get tired of doing the same training every year. I just like to do ATs: the more training the better."
The training value of the location was apparent from the beginning when the Soldiers stepped foot on Fort Irwin.
"As soon as I got off the bus I literally thought they had messed up and sent me back to Afghanistan," said Cooper. "The sounds are the same, the smells are the same, and the terrain is really close to southern Afghanistan. The heat is pretty close as well."
The environment is a close approximation and helps create accurate training.
"It is more realistic as far as the recovery situations and the route clearance situation. I've been to McCoy a whole bunch of times. This has better simulated terrain, better-simulated [improvised explosive device] placement," said Cooper. "As far as my recoveries go I can't really say there is a difference because if it's broke down, it's broke down and I have to recover it. But as far as getting drivers experience for new troops who have never driven a [Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck], it's great because this is going to prepare them for the tight-winding passes in Afghanistan."
Training on recovery equipment is important for the mechanics, and training on the route clearance is important for the combat engineers.
"I've got a lot of inexperienced guys so big feature is getting them really acquainted with the equipment," said Waters. "This is very expensive, high tech equipment these Soldiers don't get to see hardly ever at home station. Having them get on this equipment, get familiarized, understanding how it works, understanding it's role in the route clearance mission, is not only vital for the platoon, but for the company because they can bring this back to our other Soldiers at home station and train them up as well."
Waters said he not only wants to bring back the training when the unit returns, but also would like to bring the entire company in the future.
"I know these guys are getting good training out here. It's going to be good for the unit when we get back. What I'm hoping for is that we bring this training back to the 441st Engineer Company and we can move forward in getting prepared for a deployment," said Waters. "Getting better prepared for actually deployment, then hopefully within a couple years maybe we can bring the company out here as a whole."