Rapid Port Opening Element Soldiers flourished during a basic rifle marksmanship course Jan. 23 to Feb. 3 at Fort Eustis Ranges 2 and 3.
The nine Soldiers, including seven from 688th RPOE and one each from 689th and 690th RPOEs qualified as expert shooters with the M4 rifle - 36 out of 40 targets hit -- with an average of 38.6 out of 40 - during the 80-hour Level 1 Small Arms Academy BRM course.
The course was taught by 128th Aviation Brigade Instructors Staff Sgts. Rudy Lee and Adam Fetz. Lee, the only Level 4-certified instructor in Virginia, earned that distinction at the Master Marksmanship Trainer Course at Fort Benning, Georgia, and offered to instruct the Level 1 BRM course to members of the 597th Transportation Brigade's 833rd Transportation Battalion.
Before the RPOE Soldiers could test their skills at the ranges, they had to go through about four days of classroom instruction, which included two days of Microsoft PowerPoint instruction, a day of engagement skills training, and a day of "teach-backs" where they had to prove to the instructors that they adequately mastered the material.
As an instructor, Lee wants his students prepared to achieve more than just the minimum qualifications requirements when they go to the range.
"I try to produce expert shooters -- meaning they score no less than a 36 (out of 40)," said Lee. "For all nine (RPOE Soldiers) that got accomplished."
Lee said the Soldiers started out with a widespread shot group and it narrowed to the point of multiple rounds going through the same hole at distances ranging from 100-300 meters.
The RPOE Soldiers found the Small Arms Academy Course more effective and useful than weapons qualification in Basic Combat Training.
"In this course, it was more detailed," said Sgt. Mitchell Keeton, 688th RPOE motor transport operator and 2016 Army Materiel Command Soldier of the Year. "We learned about MOA (Minute of Angle) and how to adjust a weapon so it's zeroed to you. Also, instead of doing three-round shot groups, we did five so we could identify where our shots were landing. There were a few things that we tweaked, but in doing that, it helped improve everyone."
Seeing the RPOE Soldiers successfully apply what they learned gave validation to the course taught by Lee and Fetz.
"It gave (us) complete, 100 percent satisfaction," said Lee. He added that normally in a Level 1 course, there's a 10 percent drop because there's a certain exam and shooting standard Soldiers must meet or exceed.
"To have all nine firers qualify expert, that made me feel very accomplished," said Lee. "They were soaking in the information. There's a certain group I like to target. Normally it's specialist (promotable) through staff sergeant because they still have that eagerness to learn and adapt. But, if someone above those ranks has that eagerness, I'm willing to take them on to the course as well."
The nine RPOE Soldiers were brought up through their chain of command up to the 833rd.
"They were hand-picked to go through the course," Lee said.
Lee added that the Soldiers need to be able to "give back," meaning pass the training on to other Soldiers in their units.
"They had to be Soldiers that had some kind of longevity here (at the 833rd)," Lee said. "The unit itself will benefit from the course. Those shooters who are Level 1-certified can assist with all the marksmanship training."
Keeton said the 688th will be at the range again soon, thus having an opportunity to reap the same benefits that the seven Soldiers from its RPOE already have as a result of the training.
"688th is going to see first-hand how this is going to be beneficial for the unit," Keeton said.
Some of the specific benefits include dealing with body position, making sure Soldiers are comfortable, and that they have their hands high enough on the pistol grip.
"That's one thing I never knew in basic (combat training)," Keeton said. "I would just put my hand exactly where the grooves were, but you want to try to get your hand as high as possible."
Fetz emphasized the importance of making the weapon work for each individual.
"One of the things we try to teach is 'you want to make the weapon fit you,'" Fetz said. "That's what you're going to do whenever you adjust your body position. You have to get into a comfortable shooting area so you're not fighting the weapon every time you try to shoot."
Lee said some Soldiers have a tendency to forget about honing fundamentals.
"You're reinforcing the basic structure of what it is to be a firer," said Fetz. "The M4s aren't designed for each individual person, but you do have the ability to place your hand or your cheek where you need it. There's not one set position for everybody. It's about teaching them to find that location where they need it to be and doing the same thing over and over again and building consistency."
Fetz added that now the Soldiers who went through the course will be able to pass on knowledge and quickly correct errors when they go back and train the rest of their unit.
"It's really phenomenal to see the difference that this program can make inside one unit," Fetz said.
Sgt. Cody Bush, 688th RPOE motor transport operator, echoed Fetz's sentiment.
"The basic premise of this class is that not only do you relearn the fundamentals, but you learn why they matter, so not only do you understand that, but you can turn around and teach that (to others)," said Bush.
Keeton said he and Bush were able to make on-the-spot corrections during the training. The shared knowledge allows for the opportunity Soldiers to pay their expertise forward.
"When you produce experts, those experts are producing experts," said Lee.
Once those skills are acquired, they don't go away, Fetz said.
"I'm a firm believer that if you learn how to shoot 40 out of 40, you'll be able to shoot at least a 37 out of 40 every time thereafter," Fetz said. "It's like riding a bicycle. You don't forget how to ride a bicycle. Once you learn what it takes to shoot that 40 out of 40, you're going to be able to every single time. And just like riding a bicycle, once you learn how to do it, you can teach other people how to do it."
Lee added, "As a Soldier, regardless of where we go, one of the things we have to do is shoot. That's part of the Soldier concept."
Lee and Fetz talked about the progression of shot groups throughout the course and how they get tighter as shooting distances increase. This concept applies as students potentially progress through the level one, two, or three courses, respectively.
"All that fundamental stuff comes into play," Lee said.
Having the opportunity to learn detailed skills through the Small Arms Academy Course propelled the RPOE Soldiers to new heights.
"I'd never shot expert (at least 36 out of 40 targets hit) before this," said Sgt. Tyron Cabrera, 688th RPOE cargo specialist. "It made me understand a little more about trajectory and other little things that can change the way you shoot."
Keeton enjoyed the opportunity to refine and improve his skills during the course.
"I enjoy shooting," he said. "I was having fun the whole time."
Keeton also noted how going through the course can positively alter career trajectory because successful completion of the Small Arms Academy is annotated in Soldiers' enlisted records brief.
"Also, we get an ASI (additional skill identifier) and that's going to follow us," Keeton said.
When Soldiers go to their next unit, they'll identify those with an AFI as someone who can assist with training, Keeton said.
Pfc. Corey Musgrave, 688th RPOE traffic management coordinator, benefited from arithmetic skills learned during the course.
"The biggest thing for me was learning how to make sight adjustments," Musgrave said. "I had one where I was off paper. I did my calculations and it put me on the target. When I went to make my second adjustment, it put me right where I needed to be."
Lee explained the importance of learning the measured aspect of shooting.
"Level 1 has a lot of math involved," Lee said. "That math helps them understand the MOA."
Calculations that would take the Soldiers minutes to figure out at the beginning of the course would eventually be figured in mere seconds, Lee said. The MOA is a unit of measurement used for weapons systems and is one of a plethora of inherited skill these nine RPOE Soldiers can now pass on to others at present and future duty stations.
"Regardless of where they go, they're going to be able to go to that command and say, 'Hey, this is what I can do for your organization,'" Fetz said. "When it comes to promotion, weapons qualification is a big factor."
When it came to marksmanship, RPOE Soldiers were nine for nine at shooting 36 (or better) for 40.