By Matt SmithNovember 6, 2008
FORT LEWIS, Wash. - Shots rang out from the tops of towers and inside buildings Monday as the five Stryker vehicles of 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment entered the raw sewage water treatment plant near Solo Point.
Intel received during the early morning hours alerted a platoon to a chemist poisoning a town's water supply, and so the Soldiers' situational training exercise, dubbed "Operation Tomahawk Shock," had begun. The goal: engage the enemy, capture the chemist and maintain calm among the town people.
"Going after the targeted individual was the primary purpose" of the exercise, said 1-23 Inf.'s commander, Lt. Col. Chuck Hodges, "but what I really wanted to get at was those variables ... that platoons have to deal with and Soldiers have to deal with to be successful on the battlefield."
Those variables included media, civilians and Iraqi security forces.
"All those things that add the complexity to reality," he said. "This being the culminating exercise ... of our nine-month training plan, we brought some of that stuff together."
The platoon's initial movement into the compound was quick and its "isolation looked pretty good," said company commander Capt. Klint Kuhlman.
"You guys were pretty fast going in," he said during the after-action report, "going to your points of domination and identifying the two gates as how you want to lock down this objective."
Having only been with the unit for a few months, Spc. Michael Smith, who served as a forward observer during the exercise, felt things went well for a platoon operating together for the first time.
"We had decent fires up front, so we put a lot of rounds on the enemy. Basically, we were just trying to establish a foothold in the city," he said. "We took two casualties, but they were evacuated quickly and kept safe. We took care of the threat because it was a sudden threat that popped up from the rear. So in a matter of seconds, they went from only firing on one target to evacuating casualties and putting fire on a second target in the opposite direction. It went pretty smooth."
Smith also said it seemed like the platoon was finally starting to gel together.
"I'd say that it was like all the different pieces came together, because there was a lot of things that needed to get done," he said. "There's a lot of new people and a lot of old people (in the platoon), and we're starting to come together in these training events."
The platoon also received praise for its elimination of the enemy, its eventual capture of the chemist and for its use of the Stryker Medical Evacuation Vehicle.
Seeing how this was the first exercise the platoon had trained together in, there were, of course, going to be a few mistakes. None was more glaring, however, than a breakdown in shooting discipline by a young corporal.
Kuhlman reminded the Soldier responsible for the shooting that he broke all the rules of engagement, and that firing his weapon was unwarranted in that situation.
First Sgt. Aleki Potoae "suggested" in the future he radio a squad in the area to assist him, rather than firing weapons in contravention of the rules of engagement.
Dealing with the media, which consisted of a TV cameraman and a reporter recording all of the action and talking to both Soldiers and Iraqi civilians, proved to be, as Hodges put it, "very hit and miss."
"Some of the guys are very comfortable, and some of the guys (did) the old 'no comment' stuff," he said. "No comment doesn't work in today's operations. That's why I emphasized to them that you have to engage because if you don't tell them a story, someone else will. And we don't want the bad guys being the one to tell the story."
During the AAR, Hodges hammered home the fact that success in the modern war our country is involved in is directly related to the public's perception.
"Every, single person here, if you're in a military uniform, you are a high-ranking military official," Hodges said during the AAR. "Because the average civilian doesn't know the difference between Pvt. 2 Hodges and four-star Hodges do they' All they know is you are a man in uniform on TV doing operations. I wish it wasn't that way. The reality is that the fight we have is the fight we're in."
Though there were some ups and downs throughout the exercise, battalion Command Sgt. Maj. Alan Bjerke reminded the platoon to keep its collective chin up because on the whole, it performed very well.
"This platoon today was very, very good at reporting and very, very good at their digital skills, but they've got some work to do, obviously, with the interaction with civilians," Hodges said. "Each platoon is different, but we're on the right glide path between now and deployment. I think we're in good shape."
Matt Smith is a reporter with Fort Lewis' Northwest Guardian.