FORT IRWIN, Calif. - Reserve and National Guard Soldiers usually train one weekend a month and two weeks a year. This training is normally not done side-by-side, but two units integrated this year for their extended combat training.
The Kentucky National Guard's 1123rd Engineer Company, (Sapper), and a platoon from the U.S. Army Reserve's 441st Engineer Company, route clearance, came together as one unit at National Training Center rotation 14-09 at Fort Irwin, California, Aug. 2 to 22.
"We actually had planned to have three [route clearance packages]. They were going to be the third one," said Capt. Robert, McWhorter, 1123rd Engineer Company commander. "They were going to bring 34 folks here, but ended up only able to bring 21 so our mission had to change and this is the neat part: we integrated them with us."
The 441st combat engineer Soldiers we integrated into two packages as drivers and gunners. The mechanics and medics were also assigned within the 1123rd in their respective areas.
McWhorter said the change of mission was good for the 1123rd.
"For us it's good because the 21 people they had basically get pushed into our two RCPs and that actually benefits everybody so we get to work side-by-side by them instead of mission-by-mission," he said.
The 441st Soldiers said they felt accepted by the 1123rd.
"It's a little interesting. I've never actually worked with National Guard, but they welcomed us with open arms from the get-go," said U.S. Army Reserve Sgt. 1st Class Timothy Waters, 441st Engineer Company, platoon sergeant from Harrison, Arkansas. "What I like about them is they said, 'I don't want you to feel like the misfits because they've been in that situation themselves before.'"
Not only did the 441st feel accepted, but they saw the efforts made by the 1123rd for their integration.
"They accepted us with open arms. As soon as we got boots-on-ground in the box they put us in like they were one of theirs," said U.S. Army Reserve Spc. Matthew Cooper, Field Maintenance Platoon, 441st Engineer Company, mechanic and vehicle recovery specialist, from Brighton, Tennessee. "I can't complain. Capt. McWhorter is doing his best to make us feel at home and so are the [noncommissioned officers]."
McWhorter said he isn't surprised the 441st was able to integrate so well. He attributes it to the cordiality of his Soldiers.
"We're from Kentucky so that's like hospitality 101," he said. "They're just honing skills they already had."
While the units integrated well, they did have some growing pains while on missions.
"The question we had asked is, 'hey, guys, how's it going?' and I think because it was [so early in the training], they said, 'well, we're still working it out. It's still confusing who belongs to who, who is doing what.' I think that makes sense. You have to build muscle memory," said McWhorter. "When they actually showed up we had drawn 90 percent of the equipment. We were already there for a whole day and then they show up. We're like, 'alright, cool, all of our minds are blown. Let's just go to sleep.' Then we wake up and are trying to meld. So coming out here, having the couple days to set, I'd say if I asked the question again it would be a little more straight-forward to say, 'we're not confused because we've been on route clearance missions, we know who each other are now.'"
After a few missions, the units did work out the kinks.
"I think they're becoming a team," said Waters. "They've been out running mission and it always takes a few days to get to know people, understand where they're coming from. There is always that concern your going to butt heads with people at certain points, but I haven't seen a whole lot of that. From what I've seen, they work pretty decent together."
While becoming a team is important, the training received is essential because the units need the experience.
"You've got two companies where 40 percent of the experienced people left. Now you've got 60 percent of the folks who, including me and most of my lieutenants, are new," said McWhorter. "So, I think that's actually a great place for us to be because we're all learning together."
Not only will this training help prepare the inexperienced units, but it is also helps the units learn to work with other components and other services.
"I think it's beneficial to work with National Guard, active duty, Marines, other coalition forces, because you don't know who you're going to be integrated with, especially in an RCP," said Waters. "You've got to be able to understand and develop relationships with all different types of military units."
McWhorter said he also believes building relationships is important, but he thinks the Soldiers of the 441st who didn't attend the training at NTC will be disappointed they didn't build those relationships and attend the training during this exercise.
"What I'm looking forward to is seeing the training value of this place because I've heard it's great, I've heard stories about it. We are at the end of a long road. I think both these units are going walk away a lot better," said McWhorter. "Then for 441st when they go home they're going to have a really strong RCP platoon and they're going to benefit and the others are going to wish they went."
But, Waters has been so impressed by the training that he is already planning to try to bring the rest of company to NTC.
"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 bring back some different ideas we've gathered from the 1123rd 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."