FORT SILL, Okla. (Feb. 9, 2017) -- When cannon crewmembers engage in an indirect fires mission, they can't see their target so they have to rely on another set of eyes on the objective to verify if they are hitting it. This is the responsibility of the fire support specialist, commonly called the forward observer, which is military occupational specialty 13F.
In addition to observing impacts, fire support specialists called for fire by identifying targets and sending their locations to the fire direction center. The FDC artillery Soldiers processed and relayed this information to cannoneers on the gunline.
As rounds hit in the impact area, fire support specialists at an observation post sometimes as close as one-quarter mile to the target, assessed the impact. In turn, they let the FDC know where rounds are landing so that the guncrews could make howitzer adjustments to put steel on target.
Working with range finders, compasses, GPS devices, maps, protractors and radios, the fire support specialist is an expert land navigator, and communicator. When assigned to a company fires support team (FIST), fire support specialists run-and-gun with infantry, armor, and cavalry.
But the fire support specialist has many other responsibilities than just controlling surface-to-surface indirect fire, said Capt. Steve DeGracia, B Battery, 1st Battalion, 78th Field Artillery commander, whose Soldiers teach the 13F course.
Fire support specialists integrate any asset that isn't already a part of a maneuver (ground) commander's unit, such as aviation and artillery. They also advise the commander on how they can synchronize these assets into their maneuver operations, DeGracia said. In joint operations these assets can include Naval gun bombardment and Air Force air support.
13F ADVANCED INDIVIDUAL TRAINING (AIT)
The fire support specialist AIT is an 8.5-week course taught at Fort Sill.
The first week and a half of training is spent learning land navigation because it's such a core skill for fire support specialists, said Sgt. 1st Class Joshua Stimmell, one of the 13F senior instructors.
Pvt. Kaylee Abbott, 13F student, said land navigation began with the basics.
"At first it's just maps and compass, then later we get to use a GPS handheld device to bring us to points," she said.
Next is high physical demands training. Like all Army jobs, exertion is part of the job as "13-Foxes" are expected to keep up with the maneuver elements that they are supporting, Stimmell said.
"At the company level, each infantry platoon will have its own forward observer," he said.
Abbott, who will graduate today, said she found this part of the training to be challenging.
"We had to drag a 271-pound dummy for 15 meters within three minutes," said Abbott, who is from Jefferson, Maine. "We broke it down, so the first 10 seconds we drag and the next 20 seconds we rest, so we pretty much had one minute to drag the dummy."
Subsequent training involves call-for and adjust-for fire through voice communications via radios; and also with other no-voice secure digital communications, Stimmell said. They are graded on communications through live-fire exercises.
Many students find communications to be the most difficult part of the training, Stimmell said.
"It's a very methodical and organized process, and sometimes it takes the students a little longer to wrap their brains around the methods," said Stimmel, who has been teaching for one year.
In spite of all the military's digital technology, another tool the fire support specialists use is the pencil and drawing pad to freehand a terrain sketch of the target area.
"The purpose of a terrain sketch is so that we know our surroundings and our reference points," said 13F student Pvt. John Mills, while at Observation Post Andrews here. "We're looking out there at Signal Mountain getting direction, distance and the grid to get an accurate point to call for fire, and to adjust rounds."
Stimmell said the terrain sketch is still used in today's battlefields.
"I teach all my Soldiers to use the terrain sketch because anything can happen, like a map disintegrates," Stimmell said. "I can look at the sketch and up at the terrain and make references off everything."
One of the last topics covered in the training is an introduction to air support and fires support vehicles.
"As '13-Foxes' we also specialize in working with Army attack aviation and close-air support," Stimmell said.
Three female Soldiers completed 13F AIT Feb. 2, to become the first women fire support specialists to graduate at Fort Sill. Spc. Holly Morrison and Pvts. Emily Buffington and Bailey Hendrix will next serve at Fort Hood, Texas.
"I'm pretty excited, I definitely wanted a combat MOS," said Morrison, who was formerly an Iowa Army National Guard logistician. "When I found out they were opening to females a year ago, I began striving for it."
Buffington said she felt a sense of accomplishment and relief by completing AIT, but downplayed her gender.
"I don't think it's that important," said Buffington, from Montrose, Mich. "All my battle buddies here, male and female, did the same things, accomplished the same things and went through the same training as I did. We were all treated equal."
How did her family react when she told them she was going into a combat job?
"My mom and dad were a little concerned, but ultimately they are proud of me and excited to see what I can do," Buffington said.
Abbott and Pvt. Yesenia Gutierrez, who are in the 13F class which graduates today, both said they wanted to go into the infantry, but that it was not yet available to them.
"I wanted to go infantry, but the barracks won't be ready until summer of this year, and I didn't want to wait that long," said Abbott. "So this is the closest to infantry I could get."
It's the second field artillery MOS that has opened to enlisted women after 13B cannon crewmembers began graduating AIT here in March 2016. DeGracia said women are joining the combat arms MOSs as they open.
"It's a tiered system. We started with the gunline -- the 13-Bravos last year, and now we're kind of the last line here with our observers," he said. "Then the infantry and armor will also be intermingled with females, as well."
DeGracia said he was excited about the way the Army is going.
"I believe regardless of your sex that you should have the opportunity to serve in any MOS in the Army," DeGracia said. He noted that there are 16 other women Soldiers currently attending 13F AIT or scheduled for the training.
Stimmell said he is completely OK with women fire support specialists.
"I don't mind anyone coming into my career field as long as they can do the job," he said. "All I want is productive Soldiers."
At the graduation ceremony for Fire Support Specialist Class No. 05/02-17, guest speaker Capt. Kelly Turner, FA Basic Officer Leader Course gunnery instructor, told all the Army's newest fire support specialists: "You bring the most lethal weapons in the Army to the fight when you are proficient in your skills. You are the artillery's ambassador to the infantry, and being a professional will ensure that we continue to bring the guns to the fight."