Heat. Humidity. Plants. Animals. OPFOR and ops tempo...those are the key things that New York Army National Guard combat veterans remember about their time at the Army's Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) at Fort Polk, Louisiana over a decade ago.
Lt. Col. Michael Murphy, Command Sgt. Maj. Tom Ciampolillo, Sgt. 1st Class Justin Westfall and Sgt. Robert Edmonds were members of the New York Army National Guard's 27th Brigade when it trained at JRTC in 2001. The unit, now designated the 27th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (IBCT), is heading there again for war-fighting exercises in July.
In addition to New York's 27th brigade, the Utah National Guard's 1st
Battalion 211th Aviation, an AH-64 attack helicopter battalion; the 1st
Battalion 182nd Infantry from the Massachusetts Army National Guard, and elements of the Stryker armored vehicle-equipped 1st Battalion, 112th Infantry from the Pennsylvania National Guard will be participating in the JRTC rotation.
The veterans praised JRTC's training value, but dispensed warnings and advice.
"Everything down there is either going to sting you, prick you or give you a rash," said Ciampolillo, the 27th IBCT command sergeant major and resident of Glenville, N.Y. "It's the deep south, it's totally different."
But those challenges are all part of JRTC, which is designed to bend or break units and individual troops in order to reveal their weak points, Ciampolillo stressed. It'll test everyone's ability to do their jobs, and all the troops will leave JRTC better and smarter, he emphasized.
"They're going to get world-class training," he said. "Whatever they came in the Army to do, they're going to do it at JRTC."
"This is a more intense (annual training)," said Edmonds, of Scotia, N.Y.
That training begins in July, when the troops fly to Fort Polk and soon after, head into the training area, known as "the box." Once in the box, it's game on -- the operations tempo (ops tempo) spikes, and troops confront the opposing force (OPFOR).
Weapon systems, Soldiers and vehicles will be equipped with the Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System (MILES). When fired with blank munitions, MILES-equipped weapon systems send laser signals at MILES-equipped personnel and vehicles, setting off alarms that indicate a hit or near-miss and simulate battle losses.
Logistics is also exercised in real time, creating demands for combat-leader decisions, tactical planning, and management of both personnel and re-supply.
The ops tempo is going to be much higher because we're moving from a counter-insurgency fight to a Decisive Action Training Environment (DATE), and preparing to fight enemies who have nearly the same capabilities as us, Ciampolillo said.
So troops who've deployed to places like Iraq or Afghanistan, who might be used to living on bases, will find themselves living in the field for a long time, he explained.
"We're going back to how we fought before the war on terror," Ciampolillo said.
HEAT, HUMIDITY, PLANTS AND ANIMALS
Westfall said he'll never forget "stepping off the plane and hitting a wall of humidity."
"One thing that shocks you is the Louisiana heat and humidity," said Westfall, of Valatie, N.Y. He recalled that it was the first time they were issued camelbaks, which he described as "lifesavers for all of us."
There were many heat casualties, Murphy and Edmonds remembered. It's hard to work for more than 15 or 20 minutes without finding a way to cool off, Murphy said.
"The humidity is something I've never experienced before or since," said Murphy, of East Greenbush, N.Y. "I think (the brigade) had hundreds of heat casualties before we even got to the field. I saw three people drop unconscious in the first 96 hours there."
The first time he experienced air conditioning following the exercise is when he got on the plane to go home, he added.
Louisiana's heat and humidity are worse than anything they experienced when they deployed to Kuwait and Iraq, the veterans said. The first week of the rotation is the hardest, because personnel will be acclimatizing to the new environment, said Edmonds, who advised planning for rest breaks and using battle buddies.
"Watch each other," he said. "Overseas is a dry heat. This is a wet heat. It goes right through you. You get exhausted quickly. It's hot over there, but it's not humid. Humidity can kill you. You feel like you can't breathe."
Troops should get used to hydrating frequently, and maintaining their physical fitness, Campolillo said. Murphy, Westfall and Edmonds agreed.
"Start hydrating a month in advance," Westfall said. "It's the worst heat I've ever been in. And you have all that gear on…it's no joke."
Personnel should also be prepared for Louisiana's plants and animals, Edmonds and Westfall said. Ciampolillo remembered spiders and alligators, while Edmonds recalled fire ants -- and once, finding a black widow spider in a foxhole he was about to occupy.
"I was like, 'I'm not getting in there right now,'" he joked.
Something bit one of his fellow Soldiers on the lip as he was sleeping on a vehicle, Westfall recalled.
"It swelled up pretty bad," he said. "There's some nasty stuff down there."
Some of that nasty stuff includes poison ivy. About 10 of his fellow Soldiers suffered rashes from exposure to it, Edmonds said.
"Know your plants, especially poison ivy," he said. "There's a lot of it out in the field."
Bring baby wipes, talcum powder, bug spray, and stick to a personal-hygiene routine, which can prevent other rashes due to perspiration, Edmonds advised.
"That's important, because you'll be sweating a lot," he said. "Try to get more than you need. Once you're in the box, you can't leave."
OPFOR AND OPSTEMPO
The smart, aggressive OPFOR at JRTC made for a high ops tempo and other challenges, the Soldiers said. The OPFOR ambushed them with small arms as soon as they entered the box and took out a platoon sergeant, Westfall recalled.
But things like that teach Soldiers how to evacuate casualties and to step up -- and into -- leadership roles, he added.
Once, while he was driving in a Humvee with just a gunner, an OPFOR helicopter came in low over the treetops, attacked them, and set off the gunner's MILES, Westfall said.
"It took out the gunner, and I was by myself in the Humvee," he recalled. "At one point there were four people left in the platoon. It teaches you to carry out missions with limited resources."
As a supply sergeant, Edmonds was tasked with replenishing the troops and helping defend his unit's tactical operation center, which the OPFOR repeatedly attacked and tried to infiltrate. Encountering the OPFOR and mock firefights "gets your blood going," he said.
"(The OPFOR) were pretty good," Edmonds said. "They're going to get you. They're going to tire you out. They're going to break you. That's all they do is play OPFOR down there."
The repeated attacks added a tremendous amount of realism and reinforced the troops' tactical mindset, Murphy said.
"The OPFOR was clearly superior in their understanding of the terrain," he said. "They were hard to beat."
Fort Polk's permanent OPFOR is very good, experienced and knowledgeable, Ciampolillo said.
"That's all they do," he said. "Anything a visiting unit can throw at them they've probably seen a dozen times. They know the battlefield. You're fighting in their backyard."
Operations went on around the clock, according to Edmonds and Westfall. He often felt sleep-deprived, Westfall said.
"You learn to do things while you're very tired," he said.
The high ops tempo probably affected other parts of the operation, Edmonds said. It was sometimes hard to find the troops to re-supply them with ice, water and other items, he added.
"They were always on the move," he said.
Less than a month after the brigade's return from JRTC, terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and Pentagon, killing thousands of people. America declared war on terror, and the four Soldiers were among the many troops who served in Iraq and Kuwait.
"We just got back and it happened," Edmonds recalled. In addition to teaching him the art of defense, his time at JRTC prepared him physically and mentally for Iraq -- and that mental toughness still sustains him, he added.
Westfall said that the lessons and experiences of JRTC -- like having to conduct regular vehicle maintenance and four-wheeling through the woods -- carried over into his Iraq deployment. It gave him greater familiarity with vehicle and weapon systems, "the stuff you live and die by," he stressed.
"That's where I really got to know the Humvee," he said. "It's your lifeline, especially in Iraq. When you're thrown into the box for three weeks, you live and breathe it."
His JRTC experience also paid off in Iraq when he had to fill in for his truck commander, who went on leave, Westfall said.
"(JRTC) really gives you the 'next man up' situation," he said. You have to know what the mission is and what the scenario is and keep things moving forward."
Along with giving command staffs experience in moving troops across the country and into a battle, JRTC challenges troops physically and mentally in one of the most difficult environments there is, teaching them that the environment is always a factor to be overcome, Murphy said.
"There are learning opportunities at every level," he said.
"This is the premier training event for the Army," Ciampolillo said. "Not everyone gets selected to go."
Westfall feels lucky to have gone to JRTC, and counts it as one of his career highlights.
"If you have a chance to go, take it," he said. "It sucks while you're there, but after the fact, you get a lot out of it."