By Staff Sgt. Michael GilesJuly 27, 2018
FORT HOOD, Texas -- "I'm feeling kind of hazy," said the rifle-wielding Soldier in the dark.
I thought he meant he was feeling disoriented. I didn't blame him. It was 2 a.m., and he'd been living in the woods of Fort Hood for more than a week.
"Are you OK?" I asked. "Do you need to sit down?"
He scrunched his brow, squinted and looked at me sideways. He said again, slower and more emphatically, "I'm feeling a little HAZY."
I didn't know what was going on. I was feeling hazy as well and more than just a little. I was spent. Since early the day before, I had been struggling to keep up with the enthusiastic Soldiers of the 4th Battalion of the 133rd Field Artillery Regiment as they showed me around their annual training area. I was too hazy to realize that this Soldier standing in front of me with a quizzical look on his face didn't want to talk about his feelings. He wasn't disoriented. He was doing his job. He was addressing me with a challenge word to see if I'd respond with a password to show I was on the same side.
He glared at me a moment and spelled it out:
"I don't know you."
I introduced myself as a Public Affairs Soldier from the 36th Infantry Division, the same Texas Army National Guard division that he and his fellow 4-133 Soldiers served in. I suggested he verify my identity with his first sergeant. He seemed satisfied that I wasn't a member of the opposition force, and he allowed me to pass. I drank some water, took off my boots, and lay down under the stars. Thanks to my haze and fatigue, the cot felt far more comfortable than I would ever expect a cot to feel.
I was in the woods because I wanted to witness the rehearsal of a Field Artillery launch firsthand and capture some photos of that. Hours earlier, the battalion's operations section had approved my request and told me a Humvee would pick me up from a tank trail near the battalion tactical operations center. The ride was long; the battalion's prohibition on white lights forced us to search in total darkness for these Field Artillery Soldiers, who had intentionally hidden themselves well.
ROOM TO GROW
The driving in the dark without headlights, the well-hidden Soldiers, and the sentries accosting tired strangers with challenge words were all examples of the same concept. These Soldiers were doing all they could to rehearse realistic security measures.
"The training we're going to do out here is as real as you can get," Lt. Col. Christopher B. Fletcher, commander of the 4-133 Field Artillery, had explained earlier that day. A high level of security is necessary because Field Artillery units are high value targets for the enemy. Only sometimes do artillery units have infantrymen assigned to them to support their security. Fletcher was training his Soldiers for the possibility that they'd have to be their own security force.
"Our security posture is extremely high and important," Fletcher said. "They're shooting a rocket that leaves a trail right back to the point it came from. We're a strategic high payoff target for the enemy, so we have to protect ourselves."
The battalion's self-sufficiency extended beyond protection to everything it could need, Fletcher said. Out in the woods, these 285 Soldiers fed themselves, fueled themselves, repaired their own vehicles, and dressed their own wounds.
"We're very autonomous," Fletcher said, adding that many Soldiers prefer not to support a unit that the enemy so eagerly wants to blow up. "There are not very many who want to be around us because of what we have and what we do."
The autonomy and effectiveness of the battalion's medical section was tested the night before, Fletcher said. A simulated emergency required two calls for evacuation from two different locations and treatment of seven Soldiers for white phosphorus burns and other injuries. The involvement of white phosphorous made the training scenario more complicated because it continues to burn its victims until first responders can deprive it of oxygen.
"It was the most complex scenario they could give them," Fletcher said. "They did well. There's obvious room to grow, and they'll do it again."
Honest acknowledgement of fallibility emerged as a major theme during my 36 hours with the 4-133 Field Artillery. Everyone I spoke with showed a dedication to refining abilities. Everyone showed willingness to face his or her imperfections and accept learning experiences -- even bitter ones.
My hope for the nocturnal visit to the 4-133's B Battery was to get photos of a "time-on-target" operation. This is when multiple launchers coordinate so that rockets sent from different locations arrive simultaneously at a single target. On this occasion, a last-minute change from higher up and B Battery's own communication errors caused the mission to be less than successful, the battery's commander, Capt. John Lucas Dye, said.
As I watched the operation at 1:30 that morning, I didn't see anything that didn't appear well-executed to my unfamiliar eyes. All I knew was that there was a 20-minute delay, and my experience in the Army taught me to get comfortable with delays.
I watched as a 5-ton truck with six launch tubes on its back emerged from the tree line, Soldiers prone on its roof, scanning the darkness with a rifle and a machine gun. The vehicle stopped in a clearing, and the front end of the tubes lifted to aim at the sky. I attempted to capture the action, but the darkness was too thick even for the night-vision lens attached to my camera.
I talked with Dye the next morning about the fascinating rehearsal I had witnessed his Soldiers perform. He responded that he didn't consider the event a success. His face showed a sincere acceptance of failure, like a combination of dismay and determination to do better.
"Last night was a humbling moment," Dye said. "Last night was a demonstration of how you can't have too many rehearsals."
I told him how much I appreciated his honesty.
"Honesty's all we've got," he said.
Dye said he takes such feedback seriously. A mishap such as this one would have affected lives of Soldiers had it been real. He explained that coordinated efforts including other forces depend on time-on-target attacks happening as planned.
He said these operations are as complex as the stakes are high. They're complex because the technology involved in the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System -- or "HIMARS" -- is quite advanced, as is the technical skill required to operate it. The process involves precise targeting, de-conflicting flight paths with aircraft or terrain, and delicate, high frequency radio communication systems.
"The technical aspect is extreme," Dye said. "It can sometimes be an enigma."
These operations are also complex because members of artillery batteries spread out wide, making command and control harder than it is in other company-sized elements.
"The stressful aspect for me is knowing my platoons are kilometers away from me," Dye said. "The fog of war is thick out here."
First Lt. James G. Hamilton, operations officer with B Battery, explained how important annual training is for rehearsing these complex operations.
"There are so many moving parts," he said. "Everything has to come from battalion through the battery operations center, to our platoons, to the launchers, and then back up the chain. We're learning as we go, and the only way we can learn is if we're out here."
Hamilton said his Soldiers are experts at overcoming challenges and learning quickly from them.
"When we make those mistakes, we're able to learn from it," Hamilton said. "We rehearse it, and we do right the next time. We don't make the same mistake twice."
Dye said he expected his Soldiers would soon prove they could overcome challenges like the ones they faced the previous night.
"I'm pretty sure we'll have the same problem today," he said.
'PEOPLE WANT TO BE HERE'
The 4-133 Field Artillery hasn't always had this emphasis on productivity and realism, said Cpl. Horace P. Baumgardner, a medic who first joined the battalion in 2004 and who more than once over the years has left and come back. When he returned in 2012, the unit was achieving more of its training goals and focusing more on each Soldier's occupational specialty, or MOS.
"It seemed that on your average drill, more things were being accomplished," Baumgardner said. "Training was more task-oriented for each MOS."
Lately, the training has become more mission-oriented, he said.
"Bravo Battery trains as if tomorrow they'll be deploying," Baumgardner said. "That's recent over the past three to four years."
The approach seems to be working, not only to refine technical abilities but also to build motivation. Everyone I spoke with conveyed a sense of valuing his or her roles. No one seemed to feel extraneous or unimportant. Most seemed energized. Some seemed tired. None appeared discouraged.
Second Lt. Grant G. Howk, a support platoon leader with B Battery who has had three annual trainings -- or ATs -- with an Infantry unit, said he has never had an AT like this one.
"By far, this is the best AT I've had so far," Howk said, pointing to the collaboration among noncommissioned officers and officers, the technical expertise of the enlisted Soldiers, and the grit shown throughout the group.
"We've been in the field more than a week now, and people aren't melting down," Howk said. "People want to be here."
The 4-133's intense training tempo, which included frequent four-day monthly drills leading up to the 21-day annual training period, has led to an unprecedented state of readiness for the battalion, Fletcher said.
"I have pushed them hard," Fletcher said. "I have taken them two to three levels above what the Army says they have to be at."
The ultimate measure of Field Artillery readiness is Table XVIII certification, earned after a successful evaluation of the battalion's execution and support of a live-fire exercise. Fletcher is confident his Soldiers will achieve this milestone this coming weekend for the first time in the history of the battalion.
Are they ready for combat if they receive the call next week? I asked.
Fletcher responded affirmatively without hesitation, adding that his Soldiers won't need six months to train up before deploying. He explained that the 4-133 is now designated as a "focused readiness unit," which means it is ready to perform when called upon. The Army's recent Total Force Policy has pushed for Guard and Reserve units to adopt a level of readiness akin to the active-duty Army, and the focused readiness units are intended to meet this requirement.
"We're actually at 114 percent strength," Fletcher said. "Every Soldier knows their job, has trained in their job, has shot their weapons and is working on the equipment they would take downrange somewhere.
"Everything about the training that we're doing is as real as we can make it because we don't expect a long train-up if we're called into action," Fletcher continued. "What we expect to do is ship our gear and train for a short period of time and go do our mission."
A SENSE OF URGENCY
I headed into the woods of Fort Hood to take some pictures and find a story to tell about a unit doing some training. I didn't expect the members of 4-133 Field Artillery to tell me such an inspiring story of leadership. I didn't expect them to paint such a picture of relentlessly motivated Soldiers. I didn't expect to see Soldiers so eagerly facing their faults and growing in their skill sets.
I had learned to associate AT at Fort Hood with chigger bites, scorpions and the extreme Texas summer heat. These Soldiers were thriving despite hardships that others might find demoralizing. These Soldiers were responding to reminders of their fallibility with constantly renewed determination to work together and improve themselves. How do they do it?
Their leaders instill a sense of urgency, and they mentor and praise.
"Everybody knows they've got a job and they play an important role," said the 4-133's forward support company commander, Capt. Garry Fry. "From the top down, we're trying to convey the significance so that they don't shortchange themselves and the impact they make on the battlefield."
When Fletcher wasn't educating me about his unit, he was constantly coaching Soldiers. When I headed to the aid station to take a break from the heat, he was there coaching the medics. He presented three different Soldiers with coins during the day, showing each one he knew what that Soldier brought to the fight, and asking how civilian careers and college courses were progressing.
Together, the 4-133's leaders exemplified the combination of confidence and humility that makes it possible for people to love learning about their weaknesses so they can grow stronger.
"My No. 1 goal is to learn what I'm doing wrong," Fry said. "The minute you've stopped learning, that's the minute you've already lost."