FORT CHAFFEE MANUEVER TRAINING CENTER, Arkansas -- Building bridges is what Operation River Assault 2017 is all about, but not just in the literal sense. This year, it combined joint operations between Active U.S. Army and America's Army Reserve Soldiers and Active and Reserve Marines to deploy and assemble an approximately 300-meter long floating improved ribbon bridge (IRB) across the Arkansas River near here July 26, 2017.
The U.S. Army Reserve's 463rd Engineer Battalion, 411th Engineer Brigade, 412th Theater Engineer Command (TEC), based in Wheeling, West Virginia, was the main effort for the operation. The Brigade commanded the operation while another U.S. Army Reserve battalion, the 844th Eng. Bn., based in Knoxville, Tennessee, under the TEC's 926th Engineer Brigade supported the 463rd Eng. Bn. The Marines participating were Bridge Company A, 6th Engineer Support Battalion, 4th Logistics Group, U.S. Marine Corps Forces Reserve and 7th Eng. Spt. Bn., 1st Logistics Group, U.S. Marine Corps.
The Army has stressed making interpersonal connections with different units and components is essential, but this exercise was more than just a day for bridge builders to assemble a floating bridge.
River Assault is two weeks of Extended Combat Training to improve combat capability and readiness for every Soldier and Marine involved. The training focused on the skills of various service members, culminating in the construction of a floating bridge across the Arkansas River.
"I think one of the big things is that this is multi-compo," said Brig. Gen. Daniel J. Christian, acting commander of the 412th Theater Engineer Command, to a media representative. "We have a number of different elements from the armed services coming together to make this mission happen."
"We're one mission," said U.S. Army Reserve Sgt. Ryan Wells, with Forward Support Company, 463rd Eng. Bn., as he readied ammunition for his unit to familiarize with in preparation for qualification tables with the M240B machine gun and M249 Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW).
So many moving pieces go into this event that are behind the scenes, but with one goal in mind, which makes River Assault ideal for training.
Spc. Stephen Fatokun, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 844th Eng. Bn., a generator mechanic from Knoxville, said he's been busy since getting "boots on ground."
Fatokun said, "I'm glad to be out here training among Soldiers. It's been a good experience getting to know my unit and my people. This is my first time coming out here and I've had a good time training."
Fatokun spent most of his time during the exercise doing Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) specific training. "We've been here for a little over a week working on my MOS skills as a generator mechanic learning how to service and trouble shoot problems on three kilowatt generators," said Fatokun. "I also did cross training on servicing LMTV's (Light Medium Tactical Vehicles)."
Fellow company Soldier, Staff Sgt. Christopher Sarafian, a mechanical engineering student, said as his Soldiers were firing SAWs, "We're here to train, not just be yes men. I wanted to get my Soldiers out of the office and get some training."
Out on a range, Fatokun prepared for a M320 Grenade Launcher familiarization fire saying, "I fired the M203 (grenade launcher) before, but this is the M320, a smaller and more compact 40 mm grenade launcher, which can be fired mounted from the M4 carbine or as a standalone.
"This looks like a space gun," continued Fatokun in a joking matter. "This makes my day shooting and sending some rounds down range; learning some skills and getting some confidence."
On the day of the crossing, Active Army Soldiers from the 502nd Multi-Role Bridge Company (MRBC), 19th Engineer Brigade, based in Fort Knox, Kentucky, rode in MarkII erection boats to retrieve and push down river IRB Bays dropped in the river by CH-47 Chinooks from pilots of Company B, 7th (General Support Aviation) Battalion, 158th Aviation Regiment, 244th Aviation Brigade, Army Reserve Aviation Command based in New Century, Kansas. Ground troops coordinated via radio and hand signals to attach and detach the sling loads. Army Reserve Soldiers from the TEC, the 416th Theater Engineer Command based in Darien, Illinois, and the Marines unloaded the bays from trucks into the river to secure to the north and south shore.
"The Soldiers are putting together the bridge sets as they're floating down the river," said Christian.
Sgt. Anthony Vargas, a bridge crew member with the 502nd MRBC, was excited to be serving as a deckhand on a MarkII bridge erection boat the morning of the river crossing saying, "We've done hip pocket training; trained up on bridging operations; weapon's qualification, but this is the main event of the exercise so we're like, let's get this done already."
The different units' training schedule covered multiple types of weapon's fire, land navigation, demolition, MOS specific training, Chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defense training and bridging operations to fit their own mission priority, but at the end of the exercise, their missions melded into one.
As Fatokun said, "When I get back home, I know I'll have some new skills."