FORT A.P. HILL, Virginia -- The 249th Engineer Battalion (Prime Power) headed out into the field recently to sharpen and validate its full power-generation package.
Nicknamed the "Black Lions," this versatile and unique unit, assigned to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, deployed power plants and associated assets in two staging areas while exercising all its company-level elements to replicate a large-scale contingency operation. Soldiers also spent time practicing casualty medevac during a simulated base attack with two Black Hawk crews.
The 10-day tactical and technical training event took place March 18-29.
"This is by far the largest thing we've ever done as a battalion," said Staff Sgt. Hugo Contreras, operations sergeant for Headquarters and Headquarters Company. "We're really stressing the muscle of this battalion and our capabilities. Everything the battalion can do is taking place here."
The Prime Power missions are like no other in the Army, let alone the Department of Defense. The 249th Engineer Battalion provides commercial-level power to military units and federal relief organizations during full-spectrum operations. It's charged with the rapid provision of Army generators to support worldwide requirements.
Maj. Jean Archer, the battalion operations officer, said the exercise had a pair of major objectives: Validate three units for overseas missions -- including two for forward-base mode site deployments in support of Space and Missile Defense Command and another for an Army Central Command deployment -- and rehearse the battalion's Command Deployment Discipline Program to increase readiness to deploy within contingency operations.
"Bringing the whole team together enabled us to train at multiple echelons and exercise our mission-command system at the company and battalion levels," added Lt. Col. Daniel Kent, battalion commander and commandant of the U.S. Army Prime Power School. "It also made the training realistic and best prepared the battalion to meet these requirements in support of combatant commands."
In addition to HHC, the battalion consists of 400 Soldiers divided into four Prime Power line companies and the Prime Power School based at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.
HHC and C Company are out of Fort Belvoir; A Company is assigned to Schofield Barracks, Hawaii; B Company is at Fort Bragg, North Carolina; and D Company -- comprised of all Reserve Soldiers -- has its headquarters and three platoons in Cranston, Rhode Island, with a fourth at Fort Belvoir.
Soldiers in these companies are either power-distribution specialists or Prime Power production specialists. Distribution specialists are responsible for electrical-distribution systems in the Army, including installation of exterior services and utility poles. Productions specialists supervise, operate, install and perform sustainment-level maintenance on electric power plants.
"Coming here to this battalion field-training exercise, we call it the Prime Power reunion," said Staff Sgt. Ali Abubekr, a Prime Power production specialist with A Company. "Even though we're geographically separated, everybody from all the different companies knows each other pretty well."
The Soldiers imitated deployment life by staying in open-bay barracks, eating MREs and pulling 12-hour shifts, often slogging through the cold, rain and mud of early spring. They also got glimpses -- sometimes up-close -- of controlled burns engineered this time of year across Fort A.P. Hill's vast forests and training ranges.
As part of the exercise, two teams conducted 24-hour operations at separate sites named "Afghan Village" and "FP 22" -- where observer-controllers installed overhead lines to distribute medium-voltage power.
"It's the same setup a deployment would have," said Staff Sgt. Gilberto Reyes, a shift lead at "Afghan Village" for A Company. "We need to make sure we can run effectively. It's been pretty intense. Once out here, it's nonstop."
The two exercise sites allowed the "Black Lions" to train in different environment scenarios getting an electric-distribution system up and running using 840-kilowatt generators and higher, which could power a small town or base.
The most recent examples of Prime Power's capabilities were seen during relief operations in Puerto Rico, Florida and the Virgin Islands after Hurricanes Irma and Maria, as well as the Northern Mariana Islands following Super Typhoon Yutu last fall.
"Most of us have done this before, but it's a good refresher," Reyes added. "This type of environment allows us to troubleshoot different things and supply power to various assets."
Abubekr, who served on the validation team at "Afghan Village," said critical tasks were high on the assessment list.
"We set up different scenarios over the course of a compacted period to recreate the situations they might be going into in order to validate they are prepared to do that type of mission in a deployed environment," he added. "Within our Prime Power community, we definitely rely on one another."
Archer said she hoped the Soldiers came away from the exercise with increased proficiency in their responsibilities and a better grasp of how what they do influences the battalion's mission.
"It was also significant because it provided an opportunity to identify gaps in our capabilities and allow our geographically dispersed companies to work together and share best practices," she said. "This was a great learning experience across the battalion. For many of our Soldiers, this was the first time they saw the full scope of what the battalion does. I believe we learned more about our capabilities and shortfalls, areas where we can improve at all levels."
The 10-day grind in the field proved to be a great barometer for Prime Power, Kent said, adding his Soldiers exceeded high expectations.
"They performed incredibly well," he said. "I was really impressed with the staff -- managing operations, continuing to plan, fulfilling all logistics and communications requirements, and making complicated special staff functions look easy."
Now, after the training stint, Prime Power is better prepared to deploy around the globe in support of the Army and federal relief agencies.
"All in all, I couldn't be more proud of the team," the battalion commander said. "And I know we're prepared for any mission that comes our way."