FORT BRAGG, NC. -- Virginia National Guard Soldiers assigned to the Norfolk based 1st Battalion, 111th Field Artillery, 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team conducted hands-on training with Soldiers from the 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division Artillery during a four-day drill weekend May 4-7, 2017.

The training allowed Virginia Soldiers to become familiar with the new howitzer systems that the battalion will field during annual training in August as part of their transformation to a composite field artillery battalion. Observer controllers from the Fort Stewart-based 2nd Battalion, 306th Field Artillery Training Support Battalion also supported the training.

The battalion's Alpha and Bravo Batteries will field the M119 howitzer upgraded from the A2 to A3 model, and Charlie Battery will receive new M777A howitzers. Both are towed systems, and the M119 is 105mm and the M777 is 155mm.

"This training was the first time most Soldiers in Charlie Battery have trained on the M777A2," explained Capt. Travis Roth, the battery commander. "The training we received from 82nd DIVARTY units and our training support battalion observer controllers was excellent. It will help our team prepare for our upcoming fielding in August."

Charlie Battery was activated in January 2017 as part of the battalion's ongoing transformation.

Charlie Battery Soldiers will have to learn features of the new weapon systems which requires heavier projectiles, a larger crew and features a digital fire control system, which is not on the M119A2 previously used in Virginia.

On the first day of the training, Soldiers received familiarization training on the weapon system, reviewing the proper preventative maintenance checks and services. The Soldiers learned how to take apart the breech block and reassemble it properly.

"I hadn't touched an M777A2 howitzer until this drill," explained Spc. John Pruitt. "I learned about the ready rack and how important it is to load it properly so you don't injure yourself or have the round fall out."

During the second day, they ran dry-fire missions that provided an opportunity for Soldiers to better understand their roles and communicate as a team. Then they were able to watch their active duty peers run live-fire missions and were able to jump in and fill their roles. The third day of training focused on emplacing the howitzers.

"I was impressed by how fast our active duty partners performed their fire mission crew drills," Pruitt said. "There is a different structure, a different language, than on the M119A2. We will have to develop and refine our own SOP."

"This was a good learning experience," said 1st Sgt. Ricky Barley of Bravo Battery. "There was plenty of hands-on learning available for our Soldiers, and they seemed to really enjoy it. The one-on-one training was very helpful and will make our conversion to the M119A3 howitzer much easier at annual training this summer."

The report from the gun line was a similar story.

"The biggest difference between the A2s and the A3s is the computer work," said Spc. Taylor Cunningham, assistant gunner and the first female enlisted Soldier in Bravo Battery. "It made it simple for us to understand, and I can see how it will make our battery better once we get our own. Besides the computer technology, the preparation of the 319th and their internal ways of doing things made the process much faster."

She also had glowing reviews for how the 319th had already integrated females into their ranks.

"It wasn't about gender for them; it was about everyone pulling their own weight," she said.

"This training with the 82nd is the first of many future Active Component / Reserve Component integrated training exercises that are part of the Army Total Force Partnership Program and fully supported by First Army," explained Lt. Col. Jared D. Lake, commander of 1st Battalion. "These integrated training events maximize training realism and value, incorporate lessons learned from units with a higher operational tempo and capitalize on leader development opportunities. This mutually beneficial partnership is an enabler for meeting key reserve component gates and milestones in our Sustainable Readiness Model cycle, while providing support to active duty units."

Additional reporting by 1st Lt. Brian Giordano and 2nd Lt. Lauren Pascale