WATERVLIET ARSENAL, N.Y. -- The Army's manufacturing and research centers at Watervliet, N.Y., share a proud history of responsive support to the nation's Soldiers that dates back to the 1800s. That history and tradition was recently tested, however, and not by a defense weapons program manager who purchases weapons support in million-dollar-size contracts, but by an individual Army sergeant who simply wanted to improve Soldier readiness.

About a year ago, then Sgt. 1st Class Joshua Ward was an Observer Coach Trainer at the Hohenfels Joint Multinational Readiness Center (JMRC) in Germany when he realized that his 120mm mortar training lacked the realism that a Soldier could only get from an actual mortar system, or so he thought.

As an observer controller, mortar teams would often tell him that they are firing (simulated) hundreds of mortar rounds and he would give them credit, Ward said. But one day, he had the opportunity to participate in a live fire for the 120mm mortar system.

He "hung" 30 live rounds and was completely exhausted at the end of the firing. Not only was he tired, he was mad as he reflected back to when Soldiers said during previous rotations that they were firing hundreds of rounds. He now knew that was physically not possible.

So what this experience told him was that infantry Soldiers truly did not have an appreciation for the physical demands of hanging a significant number of live mortar rounds. This was not the Soldiers' fault as there was no realistic training available, short of firing live rounds, for Soldiers to truly experience the physical demands of live-fire procedures for the 120mm mortar system.

Despite being exhausted, Ward said he went back to his vehicle that day and drew a picture in his notebook of what a training mortar system should look like. With picture in hand he reached out to Eric Heilman, who was an advisor with the Field Assistance in Science and Technology (FAST) team that was providing support to the JMRC.

FAST advisors are subordinate to the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command (RDECOM) and are assigned to major Army operational commands, training centers and Unified Commands throughout the world to provide on-site technical advice and quick reaction solutions to technical problems. They have direct access to the Army's research and development community to find solutions to readiness challenges.

Within days of Ward's call for support, his draft concept for a mortar training system made its way to the Army's Armament Research, Development, and Engineering Center's Benét Laboratories, which is located on the Army's Watervliet Arsenal in upstate New York.

To ARDEC-Benét's Engineers, the fact that this request was from one Soldier did not matter. After all, Army readiness starts at the Soldier level and given that Soldier readiness is the Army's number one priority, the team went into action, said Dr. Brian Van de Wal, an engineering supervisor at ARDEC-Benét Labs.

"When Sergeant Ward's request came in, I knew exactly the training problem he was having," said Van de Wal, who is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves. "We quickly put together a team of engineering experts to design a 120mm mortar training aid using Ward's basic design as the foundation."

But it is one thing to design a prototype, it is another thing to manufacture one. This is where the synergy of having ARDEC-Benét Labs collocated on the Army's Watervliet Arsenal was truly proved. Within a five-minute walk of Van de Wal's team is an Army manufacturing center that has a storied history of working with the engineers and scientists at ARDEC-Benét to produce prototypes for future weapon systems.

ARDEC-Benét's acting Chief of the Mortar Branch, Karolanne Madulka, said that her team, led by Mechanical Engineer Robert Facteau, placed as much energy on this request as if it was an urgent needs request from the field because the request directly tied to Soldier readiness. Carlos Quispe of the Armament Research, Development, and Engineering Center (ARDEC) FAST Office provided initial funding.

"In a matter of a few months, we were able to design a mortar training aid that met Sergeant Ward's requirements," Madulka said. "Once the design was complete, we walked across the street to the Arsenal's manufacturing center and procured a 120mm tube that was just about to be de-milled."

Because this mortar training aid would never go into a full production schedule, cost avoidance was critical, Madulka said. That de-milled tube, which was about to be destroyed, was repurposed at very little cost. The tube fabrication required extensive welding expertise that was provided by the Arsenal's weld team.

The mortar training aid has since been deployed to the JMRC at Hohenfels and is now in action. But, to use an old adage, the mortar training aid is the "gift that keeps giving."

Since the 120mm mortar trainer was put into action, ARDEC-Benét Labs has received follow-on requests from other observer controllers at JMRC for four more training aids. Additionally, observer controllers at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La., have asked ARDEC-Benét to look into developing a similar training aid for the 81mm mortar system.

The Arsenal's manufacturing center is now placing a hold on several mortar tubes that were on track to be destroyed to support these unique Soldier readiness requests from the field.

"I can tell you this," Ward said. "I would love nothing more than to have a copy of the patent for the mortar training aid hanging in my office one day to tell the story of how a simple warfighter's idea can become reality."

Madulka said that ARDEC-Benét Labs has submitted the mortar training aid for a patent and of course, she has included Ward as part of the patent request.

Ward is now a first sergeant serving in the 10th Mountain Division.

The Watervliet Arsenal is an Army-owned-and-operated manufacturing facility and is the oldest, continuously active arsenal in the United States having begun operations during the War of 1812. It celebrated its 200th anniversary on July 14, 2013.

ARDEC-Benét Laboratories is the U.S. Army's design authority for large caliber cannon and cannon safe life considerations. A research, development, and engineering facility, Benét is responsible for the full life-cycle of mortars, tank guns, and artillery cannon for howitzers; provides tank turret support for ABRAMS and Crew Cooling for ABRAMS, Bradley and LAV combat vehicles; and provides support to the Army's industrial base at the Watervliet Arsenal.

ARDEC-Benét is a subordinate research and design center under the Army's Research, Development and Engineering Command (RDECOM) and the Army's Armament Research, Development, and Engineering Center (ARDEC). Benét is located at the historic Watervliet Arsenal in upstate New York. The co-location of Arsenal manufacturing and Benét Labs offers military and civilian business entities a one-stop shop for research, design, prototype development, full manufacturing, and long-term customer service.

Van De Wal, who at the time of Ward's request, was a lieutenant colonel attached as a military science advisor to ARDEC-Benét Labs under the authority of the Army Materiel Command-Army Reserve Element Sustainment Brigade's Detachment 8. Detachment 8's sole purpose is to support FAST requests.