FORT BRAGG, N.C. - Dust clouded the road as Soldiers from the 18th Field Artillery Brigade convoyed down another route through Fort Bragg's training grounds. For sixteen days, the Soldiers of the 18th FA Brigade trained throughout the heart of Fort Bragg and its fields and forests, carrying out their duties for the 3rd Battalion, 321st Field Artillery Regiment. This Culminating Training Exercise (CTE) was executed in preparation for the battalion's upcoming deployment.
The 3-321 FAR is one of two High Mobility Artillery Rocket System battalions in the 18th Field Artillery Brigade and improving and maintaining the battalion's readiness for future operations is their top priority. The 18th Field Artillery Brigade, an element of the XVIII Airborne Corps, is America's contingency field artillery unit, and the 3-321 FAR is responsible for providing precision long range fires as part of the brigade.
"The CTE was meant to validate our battalion's ability to deliver lethal fires while deployed and we accomplished that by conducting Field Artillery Table XVI and the Mission Readiness Exercise (MRE) successfully," said Command Sgt. Maj. Robert Russell, the 3rd Battalion, 321st Field Artillery Regiment command sergeant major.
"The training and performance of the Soldiers was on par with every other CTE I've done in my career," said Russell. "We learned there were areas we needed to work on, just like any other CTE, which is to be expected. There was a natural progression of getting better every day during the CTE, and I really appreciated that. The battalion commander and I viewed this as an opportunity for us to get better.
While the focus of the CTE was in preparing 3-321 FAR for overseas contingency operations, the other battalions of the 18th Field Artillery Brigade played a major role during the exercise. The 3rd Battalion, 27th Field Artillery Regiment, the brigade's other HIMARS battalion, provided observer controllers and opposition forces to assist the 3-321 FAR for the duration of the exercise. Additionally, Soldiers from Headquarters and Headquarters Battery, 18th Field Artillery Brigade, helped run operations from the brigade tactical operations center while Soldiers from the 188th Brigade Support Battalion provided combat logistics and support to the HIMARS Soldiers in the field.
"I've had 11 National Training Center rotations and I think the brigade did very well putting this together, with 188th BSB and 3-27 FAR," added Russell. "I was very happy with the results and I believe that we have a really good assessment as the training and feedback we received was phenomenal. The CTE was well executed and we welcomed the feedback."
Sgt. Joshua Abell is a HIMARS crew chief in Able Battery, 3-321 FAR and a HIMARS veteran from a past deployment.
"The exercise was a good learning experience for a lot of the guys who haven't deployed before," said Abell. "It really gave them a perspective about what to expect when we deploy and how intense it will be when we deploy."
"I'm confident that our whole battery will get the mission done" continued Abell. "That's due to the precision in everything we do, when it comes to HIMARS, and shooting and maneuvering."
The presence of IEDs and opposition forces added a realism to the training, said Abell.
"It taught my guys to be ready for anything," said Abell. "It's not going to be easy and relaxed, chilling on the forward operating base. We're actually going to be out there, in the muck of things. The opposition can attack at any moment, they can follow you, no matter where you're located. It taught the guys to be aware of everything around them and be ready for anything."
On Monday night, April 11, Abell's crew, along with seven other HIMARS sections from Able Battery, carried out an impressive live-fire exercise at Holland DZ.
"The night live-fire went insanely well," said Abell. "Based on rehearsals, we decided to stagger our line, it worked out perfect. We did well, our performance was definitely above the standard."
"This CTE was Grade-A, solid training for everybody, even people who have deployed, and it lets those who haven't deployed know what it's going to be like over there," added Abell. "I would do it again."
Capt. Bruce Archambault recently took over command of Baker Battery, 3-321 FAR, and just in time to see how his Soldiers could perform their HIMARS operations during the CTE.
"I knew coming in that I was taking over a very proficient battery, and what I saw during the CTE just confirmed that when it comes to executing the overall collective tasks of providing fires, these guys got it," said Archambault. "They're more than ready. We're not just qualified, we're over qualified. I'm pleased and impressed and proud to be the commander of Baker Battery."
Archambault used his previous deployment experience to help tailor the CTE to mirror real life scenarios that the soldiers could face in future operations.
"The CTE gave us a chance to validate what we said we could do all along," said Archambault. "It's very easy to sit in an office and say this is what we can do, but the proof is in the pudding."
"In the real world things can come up that you didn't account for, so in the areas that we found we were lacking, we adjusted and implemented changes to our SOPs and TTPs to make us better," continued Archambault.
This CTE was unique in that usually the exercises are conducted at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California or other similar locations, not at a home base. This is also the first time many of the Soldiers in the brigade have conducted a two-week field exercise.
"Staying out there for two weeks builds resilience," said Archambault. "Better than any classroom session, going out to the field for two weeks when it's hot, and you're eating MREs for days on end, that builds resilience better than any class can. That was a really beneficial consequence of doing a two-week long field exercise; you build resilience in your soldiers and it increases your overall readiness."
"The CTE helped give soldiers the perspective that they can push through an exercise longer than a Monday to Friday training exercise," continued Archambault. "They can go out there for an extended period of time and embrace the suck, get after our training objectives, and get the job done."
Archambault is confident that Baker Battery and the rest of the 3-321 FAR are more than ready for any future operations that may come their way.
"We're ready to get after it and we want to get after it," said Archambault. "We not only have the capability, we also have the desire and we'll get to prove to everybody that we're as ready as we said and that we can get it done better than anyone else out there."
Command Sgt. Maj. Russell agrees. "Based on my combat experiences, I feel that the battalion is ready to execute our mission. I'm definitely excited for our battalion," continued Russell. "I look forward to eventually deploying."