FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- In an age of ever-evolving technology and weaponry, the most sophisticated computer system known to man is still the human brain. In combat, there is no substitute for Soldiers who, through repeated practice, have developed the ability to react quickly and decisively to defeat the enemy.
At Fort Drum, Employees of the Directorate of Plans, Training, Mobilization and Security's Range Branch are dedicated to providing the first-class training facilities, ranges, resources and support to help ensure our Soldiers are ready to fight the nation's wars, said Joe Wood, Training Division chief.
"The range mission is to operate Fort Drum's 47 live-fire ranges and 18 major training areas, while supporting over 18,500 active-duty Soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division (LI) and an annual Department of Defense, Army Reserve and Army National Guard population of over 21,500 in achieving their live-fire and maneuver training requirements," Wood said.
The 54 Employees who make up the Range Branch possess a diverse knowledge base and set of skills, said Jim Moore, Range Branch chief.
"From the maintenance workers who are outside building structures, to the electronics workers who program the targets, to the Range Operations workers who help units plan and carry out training -- everyone plays an important part in providing first-class training to everyone who comes to Fort Drum," he said.
Whether a unit is completing basic marksmanship qualification or conducting a complex live-fire maneuver, Moore said that there is a great deal of work that goes on behind the scenes before the first round can be fired.
"Everything starts with the unit putting together a range packet," he said. "This tells us what they want to accomplish, where they would like to train, and how they plan to carry out this training."
Requests are submitted via the Range Facility Management Support System -- an online program that the Army uses to schedule training events and reserve facilities, said Dave Hildebranski, Range Control's scheduler.
"All the training requests for the installation's range facilities and simulators come through the system, and I process each one," he said.
Hildebranski said that while this is no small task, his military experience and his in-depth knowledge of Fort Drum's facilities help immensely.
"Knowing the facilities and what type of training each can accommodate makes the pro-cess go more quickly, and it also helps to have that deeper level of understanding of what these units are looking to accomplish," he said.
Hildebranski said that, while standard training requests can be approved immediately, more involved training requests require further coordination. When a non-standard training request comes in, it is passed along to a Range Branch live-fire coordinator.
Range specialist Mark Lilley, one of three live-fire coordinators, said that the key to true readiness is providing authentic training scenarios.
"To us, training is not just about checking the block," he said. "We know that things can change quickly in a combat situation, and Soldiers need to have realistic, in-depth training so that they can react instinctively to any situation."
Lilley said that the live-fire coordinators can offer suggestions to optimize the training that a unit is requesting.
"We help guide them so that they can focus on getting their Soldiers ready to complete the task, knowing that we have them set up for the best training opportunity possible," he said.
Once the unit has completed all of the necessary paperwork and has completed a risk assessment, the packet is given to the Range Operations safety officer.
"His job is to review the packet for every training event," Moore said. "He is responsible for ensuring the safety of those conducting the training, as well as everyone else on the range complex."
Preparing a range for use requires the collaborative efforts of a team consisting of an engineer equipment operator, maintenance workers and electronics workers, Moore said.
"Our engineer equipment operator does any earth-moving that is necessary to prepare the area," he said. "Then the range maintenance workers can build objectives and target locations."
Each outdoor range has a different layout, designed to simulate a variety of situations that Soldiers might encounter in the field.
Moore said it is vital that the first time Soldiers encounter the sights, sounds and smells of combat, it happens in a controlled training location -- not during an engagement with the enemy. The Infantry Platoon Battle Course, located at Range 24, allows Soldiers to see what it might be like to move through an enemy-occupied location.
"They navigate through buildings and shoot at targets located throughout the range," he said. "They are practicing their individual skills, but -- more importantly -- they are learning to work together as a cohesive unit to accomplish their mission."
From basic ranges set up for stationary weapon firing exercises, to ranges complete with buildings, trenches and hundreds of moving targets, a great deal of work goes into the creation and maintenance of each area, Moore said.
"Our electronics and maintenance guys work together to set up the ranges and our three-dimensional targets," he said.
The targets are electronically controlled, and they can be programmed to raise and lower in a specific sequence. They also can be set on tracks, allowing them to move during a training exercise. When not in use, targets are lowered into a concrete frame, which provides some protection from the elements.
The training ranges are used year-round, and Moore said that maintaining the targets is tough work -- especially given the extreme weather that occurs on Fort Drum.
"When it snows, our maintenance workers are out here digging out hundreds of targets," he said. "When it's 30 degrees below zero and a circuit goes up, our electronics workers are out here fixing them. It takes a very committed person to work out in the hot sun or in the freezing cold to fix buildings and targets that are going to be destroyed again the next time a unit uses the range. The work never ends for them."
While a unit is training on Fort Drum, Soldiers must remain in contact with fire desk operators at Range Control, Moore said.
"The fire desk operators use large maps and numerous computer systems to track everything that is happening on the range," he said.
Once they are approved, the unit can move onto the range. When they arrive at their designated location, they make contact with the fire desk again, said James P. Moore, Range Operations safety officer / operations supervisor.
"They call in to tell us they are on site, and we record information -- who is in charge, how many people are on the range, what type and amount of ammo they are using -- and we keep a record of that," he said.
Range safety inspectors are responsible for ensuring that the unit is following its approved training plan. They inspect each unit's ammunition supply point and assess the area for potential hazards before training can begin.
The unit then contacts the fire desk to request permission to "go live," or send rounds down range. The fire desk operators check their screens to make sure that no one else is within the safety danger zone -- what has been defined as the area that rounds could potentially reach -- before granting permission.
At this point, Jim Moore said, the plan has been assessed multiple times and several individuals have checked to ensure that it is safe to proceed with the exercise.
"When we tell someone that they can begin firing on a range, there cannot be any guesswork," he said. "We have to know with 100 percent certainty that it is safe for them to do so."
Once Soldiers have finished firing their rounds, the Range safety inspector returns to their location to ensure that the area has been cleaned up and returned to its original condition -- ready for the next unit to use.
Chief Warrant Officer 3 Milton McCardle, a Soldier with the New York Army National Guard's 142nd Assault Helicopter Battalion, said that Fort Drum provides the excellent training facilities and support that are necessary to ensuring unit readiness -- especially in a unit whose elements are spread out across the state.
"Having a location like Fort Drum, where we can bring all of our forces together and operate as one unit, allows us to combine our arms and resources to do collective training," he said. "The support that Fort Drum provides allows us to put all of the pieces of the puzzle together to make our mission possible."
Bill Mandigo, range maintenance supervisor, said that it is extremely rewarding to see Soldiers conduct training on the range.
"It's satisfying to watch Soldiers using the facilities that you have built and maintained," he said. "They train as if they were in combat, and watching them out here -- you really get a much more realistic idea of what our Soldiers go through down range. It makes you want to work even harder to ensure that they get the best training possible and come home safe."
Jim Moore said that, while much has changed in the Army over the years, one thing that has not changed is the vital role of the light infantryman.
"No matter where we are deployed and no matter what the mission is, we are always going to need professional, combat-ready Soldiers," he said. "At the Range Branch, we are committed to providing them what they need to develop their skills and meet the mission."