FORT POLK, La. -- For once, the infantry were not walking. With the sound of rotor blades echoing in the central Louisiana night, hundreds of Soldiers from the New York Army National Guard's 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry conducted an aerial movement from staging areas to secure a military objective July 19, 2016 as part of the Fort Polk Joint Readiness Training Center here in the fictitious nation of Atropia.
The New York Army National Guard Soldiers and their supporting aviation elements are part of JRTC rotation 16-08, with the 27th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, based in Syracuse, N.Y., leading Task Force Hunter. The Soldiers are battling the environment, summer heat and a trained opposing force in an exercise that brings as much realism as possible to troops.
"With the pace, lack of sleep and all the assets they have here, it really feels like you're deployed," said Sgt. Alexis Bruno, from Brooklyn, N.Y., a sniper assigned to the 1-69th Infantry Headquarters Company.
The battalion employed CH-47 Chinooks and UH-60 Blackhawks to move forces quickly forward and allow the brigade task force to conduct a relief in place with Army paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team. The paratroopers, based at Fort Bragg, N.C., conducted an airborne assault July 17 to secure key objectives in Atropia for the training exercise.
The infantry troops join more than 5,000 other Soldiers, including Army National Guard, Army Reserve and active Army elements of the task force for the JRTC rotation, running from July 9-30 to challenge the task force in combined arms operations against a trained opposing force.
"Overall it's a great experience, the role players make it seem real, and we're fighting in a fully functional city and interacting with residents," Bruno said. "We just treat people with respect and they react to what you do."
The Joint Training Center affords combat training in a realistic environment which features a well-trained opposing force, civilian role-players on the battlefield, high-tech systems which monitor the action and effects of all weapons and observer-controllers to evaluate unit actions.
"Our Soldiers are constantly on the move -- using the skills they already have and learning real fast how to function at high speed with minimum sleep because you never know when you'll be called into the fight and have a mission," said Staff Sgt. Irshaad Mohamed, an infantryman from Queens, N.Y. and section leader assigned to Co. D, 1-69th Infantry. "You need to be ready to roll at a moment's notice."
Delta Company is the battalion's quick reaction force or QRF, and is the rapid response to developing situations. By July 23rd, in the unit's first 96 hours, they had performed security missions, engaged enemy aircraft and provided first response for a casualty evacuation, Mohammed explained.
"The training is really realistic and they are putting us through a lot, but it's not a war zone. Here you can make mistakes, so it's a great opportunity to develop our younger Soldiers," Mohammed said.
"We're putting them in charge as much as possible, they're learning to make decisions and if they're wrong, they learn from them. That's why we're here," Mohammed added.
If I get taken out of the fight, they need to take charge and know each other's role, so we're doing a lot of cross training while we're here," Mohammed explained.
A significant part of the exercise is the professional observers and trainers who identify shortfalls and provide feedback and guidance to develop correction plans for improvement for when the unit returns home. The ultimate goal is to depart from the exercise with valuable lessons to improve the unit's readiness and future training plans.
"I'm impressed with how the infantry Soldiers are dealing with the environmental conditions and their resiliency. The heat and humidity could be having a much larger impact on their effectiveness and they're dealing with it really well," said Capt. John Herger, a senior observer-controller-trainer with JRTC Operations Group.
"So far they are demonstrating a strong adherence to Army doctrine and they'll learn what they're good at and recognize areas where they need improvement," Herger said.
"My job is to prepare Soldiers to go into combat, there is always a marked improvement in the units that come through JRTC; there is always something of value to learn," Herger exclaimed.
Training at JRTC isn't entirely a force on force event. Six of the brigade task force rifle companies conducted a three-day life-fire exercise at Fort Polk, employing all of the unit's weapons in the squads and platoons along with supporting elements such as mortars and engineers.
Both Alpha and Charlie Companies of the 69th Infantry participated in the live-fire, with augmentation from Delta Company and headquarters elements. The training, over three days, included a walk-through, blank fire rehearsal and finally a full company event with live munitions.
"The skill and professionalism of the Soldiers, to include their supporting platoon from Delta Company and engineer team was outstanding," said Brig. Gen. Raymond Shields, the New York Army National Guard commander and observer of Charlie Company, led by Cpt. Andrew Prior during the live-fire on July 25.
"The event was extremely realistic and tough training for the unit as they advanced over three days from crawl, walk, run with a culminating live fire," Shields said.
"Although hot, sweaty, and dirty when done, the Soldiers were all excited on completing such a challenging training event," Shields said.
"Captain Prior and his entire unit have learned a great deal from this JRTC experience," Shields continued. "As a testament to the effectiveness of the training, several Soldiers told me they would love to do this every drill weekend."
The 1-69th Infantry and all of Task Force Hunter will train through the end of July before returning to their home stations in early August.