By Devon L. SuitsAugust 29, 2018
FORT HOOD, Texas -- Outfitted in full battle gear, troops from the Tennessee Army National Guard were dripping with sweat as they arched over their M4 carbines and M240B machine guns during final equipment checks.
Despite the heat, the squad from Team Enforcer appeared to be in good spirits as they quietly discussed tactics for their upcoming live-fire exercise. Alongside them was a team of First Army observer-coach/trainers, or OC/Ts, helping the Soldiers train for their deployment.
The company had been operating out of a field base camp nestled among the tall brush of the Fort Hood woodlands. Day and night, the Guardsmen pushed themselves beyond the point of exhaustion, as they rotated through a series of situational training exercises, or STX, to reinforce the concept of support, base, and synchronized fires.
The unit was part of a combined arms battalion and other enablers that comprise Task Force Raider, or the 2nd Battalion, 278th Armored Brigade Combat Team (formerly Armored Cavalry Regiment) that will be in Poland over the coming months participating in Exercise Atlantic Resolve.
The battalion just came off a recent rotation to the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California, before reporting to Fort Hood in early July. With the battalion were about 50 OC/Ts from First Army's 1st Battalion, 306th Infantry, 188th Infantry Brigade who had traveled from Fort Stewart, Georgia, to support the mobilization.
For more than a month, the OC/T team had maintained 24-hour operations, cycling through 12-hour shifts, to ensure the 2nd Battalion, 278th Armored Brigade Combat Team received the necessary training before their departure, said Lt. Col. Eric Nylander, commander of the 1st Battalion, 306th Infantry.
During the STX, safety was paramount as the team of First Army OC/Ts weaved in and out of the formation to check each Soldier's personal protective equipment, weapon safeties, and rifle handling procedures.
After OC/Ts had finished their equipment checks, the squad leader administered a series of quick hand movements. It was time to move out.
Taking the lead, the gunner advanced slowly through the tree line and down a dusty white path that was surrounded by a mixture of living and burnt foliage. For the next mile, the squad maintained noise discipline, as they cautiously maneuvered safely and securely throughout the training area.
And trailing close behind was a team of OC/Ts -- watching, listening, and documenting the 2nd Battalion, 278th Armored Brigade Combat Team every move.
SUPPORTING THE TOTAL FORCE
Aligning with the Army's total force policy, First Army serves as the U.S. Army Forces Command's designated and coordinating authority with the goal of partnering, advising, assisting, and training Army Reserve and National Guard units, said Col. Lance Cangelosi, commander of the 120th Infantry Brigade.
As the unit permanently based at Fort Hood -- one of two designated Mobilization Force Generation Installations -- the 120th Infantry provided logistical support to the 1st Battalion, 306th Infantry and the 2nd Battalion, 278th Armored Brigade Combat Team at Fort Hood.
"When we look at every single Soldier in the United States Army, their uniform doesn't say the Army Reserve or Army National Guard -- it just says U.S. Army," Cangelosi said. "The United States Army is critical to our national security and no element can do it alone. We all make valuable contributions, and we all bring different perspectives and experiences that are crucial to the Army's success."
The Army's total force partnership is the driving force behind First Army's interaction with the Guard and Reserve. The partnership program garners a stable relationship of cooperation between Guard and Reserve units and their active-duty counterparts with the purpose of promoting leader development, sharing training opportunities, developing staff functionality and communicating lessons learned, according to First Army officials.
Year round, First Army -- divided between East and West regions -- relies on OC/T teams that are constantly on the road to support the Army's total force concept. Moreover, First Army's training support brigades are divided into two categories: pre-mobilization and post-mobilization support, Cangelosi added.
Reserve and Guard components tend to follow a five-year cycle of readiness. A unit will often mobilize, then deploy for one year, then return to their home station for three to four years to reset and retrain for their next mission, Cangelosi said.
Pre-mobilization brigades focus on supporting Guard and Reserve units back at their home station. These brigades are continually interacting with the units to determine what support is needed to meet their training goals.
Similar in nature, post-mobilization support units -- like the 120th Infantry Brigade -- have the added role of evaluating units before an upcoming deployment.
"First Army will sit down with a deployable unit and develop a training plan," Cangelosi said. "The unit then travels to a mobilization station, like Fort Hood or Fort Bliss, and First Army helps to facilitate their training, validation, and ultimately their deployment."
Annually, up to 15 units of various sizes cycle through Fort Hood prior to their deployment. This equates to approximately 2,500 Soldiers undergoing training at any given time, Cangelosi added.
WILDFIRES HALT MOBILIZATION TRAINING
During their time in Fort Hood, the 2nd Battalion, 278th Armored Brigade Combat Team refined their individual skills, to include individual crew-served weapons qualification, Nylander said. The unit also qualified on all its crew gunnery platforms, including the M2 Bradleys and M1 Abrams tanks, along with other artillery elements like mortar fire, dismounted Infantry squad training, and larger platoon-level gunnery.
However, shortly after the 2nd Battalion, 278th Armored Brigade Combat Team's arrival, four separate wildfires raged out of control and quickly spread across the Fort Hood training area.
A combination of live-fire training exercises and the region's hot and dry weather conditions triggered the fires, according to officials. And although the fires posed no immediate threat to the installation's boundaries, personnel, or property, a majority of the range-based activities were halted and rescheduled, and training areas were evacuated.
At its worst, a thick blanket of smoke draped over the installation, while the red hue from the fires could be seen from miles away.
For more than 10 days, the fires raged across 8,500 acres, leaving a wake of destruction in their path, officials said.
Training resumed shortly after the wildfires were under control. Nonetheless, the hot weather conditions at Fort Hood forced training officials to limit all range operating hours -- impacting the ability to conduct training, Nylander said.
For the 1st Battalion, 306th Infantry, fully qualifying the 2nd Battalion, 278th Armored Brigade Combat Team would be a challenge and failure was not an option. The team sought support from the 120th Infantry Brigade and III Corps to meet their training-support needs, Nylander added. The brigade also relied upon the experience of their OC/Ts to ensure that the 2nd Battalion, 278th Armored Brigade Combat Team met their mobilization requirements.
"We've got experienced NCOs on my team that have run numerous ranges," said Capt. Sean Buchanan, an OC/T assigned to the 306th Infantry. "They passed down that experience on how to efficiently run a range based on the limited amount of time we've had, and it has benefited the unit."
Like a chain of aligned dominoes that topple in almost perfect succession, 1st Battalion, 306th Infantry OC/Ts worked hard behind the scenes to rack and stack training scenarios, only to be met by the 2nd Battalion, 278th Armored Brigade Combat Team's determination to reach their training goals.
"One of the things that I admire most about Task Force Raider is our versatility and our flexibility," said Lt. Col. Donny Hebel, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 278th Armored Brigade Combat Team. "We've had so many changes due to the wildfires and we had to adjust our training plan. Soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 278th Armored Brigade Combat Team have been adaptable and they changed their plans to meet the requirements steadfast and never wavered from that.
"I'm extremely proud of all of my Soldiers for that," he added.
FOUNDED BY DOCTRINE, DRIVEN BY EXPERIENCE
"This job can be demanding -- so you've got to have a fire in your belly and want to help," Cangelosi said. "You've got to want to roll up your sleeves and dedicate yourself to making a unit -- which is mobilizing and deploying -- the best that they can be. That requires a certain amount of commitment. And that's something that we have in spades across our formation."
Serving as an OC/T is considered to be a career-broadening assignment. First Army OC/Ts must attend a week-long certification course at the First Army Academy in Camp Shelby, Mississippi. For eight days, Soldiers are immersed in the OC/T culture to understand better their role in supporting the total force mobilization process.
"OC/Ts are always digging into the books and looking at doctrine ... to ensure that we're giving them the best, most up-to-date information," said Master Sgt. Randy Freeman, an OC/T with the 1st Battalion, 306th Infantry. "I try to give Soldiers an answer by doctrine and tie it to their experience, so they can better understand."
Army doctrine serves as the foundation to the OC/T program, Freeman added. However, an OC/T's experience plays a vital role in the OC/T program, as different Soldiers often require a different training approach to receive the best results.
"You have your leader's toolbox," said Freeman, referencing an analogy he used since he was a platoon sergeant, and now as an OC/T. "Sometimes, some people need the jeweler's screwdriver. Some require the hammer.
"You have to be able to read people and understand what their level is, and approach that from whatever direction you need to get to help them to understand. The end state is always the same, but the path to get there might be a little different."
For Reserve and National Guard units, First Army OC/Ts are the last trainers they will see prior to deployment, Cangelosi said. In turn, it is up to First Army to provide all units with the best training available to adequately prepare them to conduct their mission.
"That's an incredibly rewarding experience," Cangelosi added. "So, we ask every OC/T to look in the mirror every night and ask themselves a simple question: 'Have I done everything that I can do to make this unit as ready as they can be, before they deploy?'"