FORT RILEY, Kansas - More than 450 Army Reserve Soldiers from around the country are participating in a three-week platform gunnery exercise here designed to hone crucial gunnery skills and increase overall battlefield survivability and lethality.

The event entitled Operation Gauntlet is the first time the 209th Regional Support Group, 76th Operational Response Command has hosted a brigade ran, platform gunnery qualification event, and it's the first time the event is being held here.

"The mission here is to provide a gunnery qualification exercise to evaluate crews throughout the division's footprint, on their ability to engage stationary and moving targets in a tactical array, in order to determine the crews lethality and readiness," said Staff Sgt. Ryan Sanders, division master gunner, 76th Operational Response Command. "This is a very important exercise because it gives the unit commanders the ability to evaluate their crews readiness and their ability to provide lethal battlefield support to convoys."

Once gunnery crews arrive here they spend eight-days learning, honing and refining gunnery skills through a phased approach that starts with the basics of heavy weapons handling and knowledge and leads up to a final test of daytime and nighttime qualification ranges where crews have to put rounds on targets out to 800 meters while wearing chemical protective masks.

"Like all training we do in the Army, the gunnery tables utilize the crawl, walk, run methodology," said Sanders. "We start with an evaluation of the crews knowledge of the weapons systems and their ability to perform rudimentary tasks such as clearing the weapon, disassembling and reassembling it and performing a functions check. Next, crews move forward to virtual simulations designed to introduce them to a maneuver range and using fire commands in a controlled simulated environment. The next phase is Table III where Soldiers are in their vehicles moving on a maneuver range, scanning and identifying targets and engaging them with blank rounds. Those are the three prerequisites that every crew must complete before they are given live ammunition and allowed to conduct live fire events."

Once on the live fire practice range, all the crews training and knowledge comes into play. They must engage troop and truck sized targets in both a daytime and nighttime environment using correct fire commands and under strict target engagement timelines. Once they successfully complete the live fire practice, they move to the qualification range where their ultimate goal is to qualify by obtaining a combined daytime and nighttime score of at least 700 points.

As crews here soon discovered, qualifying is both a daunting and challenging task that some will not complete. Approximately two-weeks into the operation 45 crews have taken their turns behind the gun and less than half of those crews met the minimum qualifying score needed.

One of the crew members who qualified with a superior score of 903 out of a possible 1000 was Sgt. Tyler Nickol, a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) specialist and native of Augusta, Georgia, assigned to the 371st Chemical Company, 457th Chemical Battalion, 209th Regional Support Group. "For anyone who hasn't done this before, it's absolutely difficult," he said. "There are a lot of things you have to do in order and execute in a small amount of time. It's very difficult, especially for someone new to gunnery, but it's absolutely manageable."

Nickol isn't new to gunnery. He has several years of experience under his belt, and although he said he is happy his crew did well, he also said there is a lot more to gunnery than just the score you receive.

"Getting a good score is fine and all," he said. "But being able to really learn gunnery skills and take that knowledge back to my unit and my Soldiers...that's what really matters to me."

Another Soldier who did well scoring 437 out of a possible 500 points in the daytime qualification was Sgt. Charlie Mobley, a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) specialist and native of Fort Mill, South Carolina, assigned to the 371st Chem. Co., 457th Chem. Bn., 209th RSG.

"This is definitely not easy," he said. "Some people think that using the Common Remotely Operated Weapon Station (CROWS) is easy and that it's just like playing a video game, but there is much more to it. When you are engaging targets with live-fire under strict time deadlines, the pressure is on and it is really challenging to perform well."

Just like Nikol, Mobley is also eager to take the knowledge he has gained here back home and share it with his Soldiers. "I think all the training here this week has been very helpful," he said. "Coming here I didn't know a lot about the .50 caliber machine-gun, and I had never qualified on it. Now I can take what I've learned here and share that with my Soldiers to help them and make them better."

Although, not all crews will leave Operation Gauntlet qualified, they will leave with some invaluable knowledge, experience and hands-on training, as well as an After Action Report, recorded audio and video of their qualifying attempts and additional helpful paperwork.

"Overall I think Operation Gauntlet is a success," said Sanders. "Even though I'm disappointed in our qualification rate, the 209th RSG has gained some very valuable knowledge on how to run a gunnery event, and I think we have provided excellent training for the Soldiers."

For those units looking at attending a gunnery event in the future, Sanders says start training now. "First and foremost, units need to take the time at battle assemblies to get the weapons out of the arms rooms and into the hands of their Soldiers," he said. "There are plenty of resources available to conduct basic gunnery training at the company level, it's just a matter of allotting time to do it and relying on the noncommissioned officers to make it happen."