By Sean Kimmons, Army News ServiceAugust 8, 2017
LOHATLA, South Africa -- When Pfc. Andrew Brown triggered a fiery blast from an AT-4 rocket launcher at the recent Shared Accord exercise, it was his first time using the shoulder-fired weapon.
"My heart thumped a good beat after that," said Brown, 24, of Salisbury, North Carolina. "I was just hoping I hit [the target]."
As part of a move to provide more realistic training to younger Soldiers in 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault)'s 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, several of the rockets were shot in the exercise along with other anti-armor weapons including the Javelin, Carl Gustaf and TOW, a tube-launched, optically tracked and wireless-guided missile.
While the "No Slack" battalion performs live fires at its home station in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, the unit cannot practice firing all of these powerful weapons in training scenarios there.
The unit was given that opportunity at the South African Army Combat Training Center, where more than 230 of its Soldiers participated in Shared Accord, which ended Aug. 3. Held annually at different sites in Africa, the two-week exercise works to improve the peacekeeping capabilities of U.S. and African forces.
"Platoons haven't had all those weapon systems at one time," said Lt. Col. Eddie Sedlock, the battalion commander. "The fact that we're getting to employ these here in Africa during a live fire is something we couldn't do back home."
At 610 square miles, the center -- the largest of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere, according to its website -- gives troops a unique training ground dominated with thorny bushland and unforgiving, rocky hills.
During the live fire portion of the exercise, Soldiers used explosives to breach an obstacle and fired at pop-up silhouette targets. Packing more of a punch, the anti-armor weapons were then used on stationary vehicle targets -- all while Soldiers cleared buildings and supplied cover fire.
"It's a challenge for squad leaders to continue pushing squads forward while dominating their key terrain," Sedlock said of the objective, which was about 300 meters long.
Before the live fires, Soldiers went through situational training exercise lanes, learned bushcraft skills and fought against a South African-led opposing force. They even practiced protecting defenseless people from a notional rebel group.
"We focus a lot on live fires back home and trying to work in the constructive STX lanes is a challenge when it comes to time and resources," Sedlock said. "When we have this opportunity here light bulbs go on all across the force from company commander down to private."
Since many of his Soldiers still have no combat experience, Sedlock said he enjoyed watching their growth throughout the realistic training. Fresh infantrymen, though, weren't the only ones receiving lessons.
"At the battalion level," he said, "I'm learning a lot in exercise design of how to -- with minimal resources -- put Soldiers in a position where they have to make decisions on their feet."
Sgt. Erik Yazbeck is one of the team leaders who had to quickly maneuver his Soldiers during the live fire. When not given orders from his squad leader, he took the initiative to place his team effectively to keep gunfire on enemy targets. He also coached his troops who failed during the mission to ensure they improved the next time.
"We've all been in their position," said Yazbeck, 25, of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. "We teach them now because one day they're going to be in my shoes and I'll be in my squad leader's shoes and so forth."
He also appreciated the center's training environment, where his Soldiers could grasp how all the different pieces worked together.
"It gives them a little understanding of the why, because when we have Soldiers going at something and they don't know the why then it doesn't make sense," he said. One example, he noted, was having his team members wait to attack until mortars softened the objective. "It helps them see the big picture of a complex situation."
Deploying to South Africa, a country where majority of the Soldiers have never been, presented another training test. Besides personnel, the battalion had to deal with customs officials to transport vehicles and equipment to the country before setting up a tactical operations center in the bush.
When a Soldier deploys to Iraq or Afghanistan, for instance, there are contractors supporting them. At the South African center, there was none of that, which added another kinetic aspect to the training, according to Brig. Gen. William Prendergast, deputy commander of U.S. Army Africa and the exercise's co-commander.
"It is unlike anything they've trained in before," he said of the training center. "They're putting all those things in operation in an austere environment, which is a huge opportunity for them."
After all, that was the main point of the exercise -- setting the conditions for a successful operation in response to a humanitarian crisis, natural disaster or conflict on the African continent, he added.
The chance to train with a foreign partner also increased interoperability among both nations, another key piece of the exercise. "You shouldn't be sharing business cards at the point of impact," the general said. "We're going out and we're sharing our business cards now."
As for Brown, he thought it was an "awesome" experience to train and integrate with the South Africans in their terrain. Knowing how they work firsthand will help U.S. Soldiers if they ever have to deploy there in a real-life situation, according to the infantryman.
"It just opens up a whole new world [for me] as far as training goes," he said. "There is no telling where we will go next."