By Sgt. Tawny SchmitJuly 24, 2019
CAMP RIPLEY, Minn. - From 2010-2011, Iowa National Guard (IANG) Soldiers with the 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team (2nd IBCT), 34th Infantry Division, were assigned to 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (101st ABN) for Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Now, ten years after that deployment, which was the largest mobilization of the IANG since World War II, the National Guard and active-duty units continue to strengthen their working relationship.
Approximately 3,000 IANG Soldiers converged at Camp Ripley Training Center in Minnesota for a 21-day eXportable Combat Training Capability (XCTC) rotation. XCTC is a collective training exercise for National Guard brigade combat teams to certify platoon proficiency in coordination with First Army. About 250 101st ABN Soldiers are acting as the Oppositional Force (OPFOR), a unit tasked with representing the enemy.
Although the 101st ABN Soldiers' primary mission at XCTC is to act like the enemy, the commander of Company A, 224th Brigade Engineer Battalion (224th BEB), IANG, Capt. Thomas Bentley said the exercise is also an opportunity for the two units to collaborate.
"The relationship between the 2nd IBCT and 101st out of Fort Campbell is to really embrace the total Army partnership program," Bentley said. "This was a policy put out by [U.S. Army Forces Command] commander that really identified that our National Guard and Reserve need to be able to work seamlessly with our active Army counterparts."
One of those opportunities arose when Soldiers with 1st Battalion, 326th Brigade Engineer Battalion (326th BEB), 101st ABN, integrated with the 224th BEB to be trained on demolition techniques and procedures. 1st Sgt. Jeremy Cole, combat engineering senior sergeant with Company A, 1st Battalion, 326th BEB, taught blocks of instruction on subjects like urban breaching and improvised explosives. Soldiers wearing Red Bull and Screaming Eagle unit patches gathered in a horseshoe on a hot day during the exercise to listen to his classes, taking notes as he wrote equations on paper and demonstrated techniques on how to tape demolition cord to various targets.
"My expectation is to fully support National Guard units as best I can," Cole said. "The biggest challenge we think we're going to have is trying to simulate what we think the Guard Soldiers are going to see when they go downrange. That will include conventional warfare, as well as counterinsurgency warfare."
Cole is Sapper qualified and, prior to his current assignment, was an instructor at the Sapper Leader Course in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, a demanding leadership development course for combat engineers where critical skills are reinforced and advanced techniques are taught. During his tenor there, Cole said he always had a deep respect for National Guard Soldiers, and his IANG students were no exception.
"Almost every IANG Soldier did very well," Cole said. "When the course has a 60 percent attrition rate, and you can say you have a higher graduation rate than 60 percent, you're doing pretty good."
The instruction, which consisted of various things you would learn at Sapper school, will give 224th BEB Soldiers another tool in their toolkit in the event they don't have access to conventional munitions, Bentley said.
"We have the ability to get creative, improvise, adapt and overcome," Bentley said.
While XCTC offers a dynamic, complex environment that tests Soldiers physically and mentally, it's not the only place IANG Soldiers have been able to work with their active-duty counterparts. Sgt. Caleb Titus, a team leader with Company A, 224th BEB, participated in a 72-hour field training exercise with the 101st ABN at Fort Campbell in May.
"I got to see the world through different eyes," Titus said.
It was a challenge at first to integrate with the unit as an outsider, he said, but with a little time and instruction on their standard operating procedures, he finished the exercise smoothly and with a confidence that he built a good name for the IANG. Small differences, like how they set up their gear and carry it, or how they approach targets, were elements he brought back and shared with his unit.
Titus' experience reinforced the importance of the relationship between the 2nd IBCT and the 101st ABN.
"We get to go and see what they do and bring that back to our guys and see how that works through trial and error," Titus said. "We get new ideas. It's always good to get a different perspective on things."
While Bentley served as an XCTC Project Officer at Fort Campbell, he said he saw it as an opportunity to represent the state of Iowa and interact with active-duty counterparts. As he worked to hash out the 2nd IBCT's purpose at XCTC, he also built relationships; and in a world with an increasing demand for the National Guard, it's important to maintain those relationships, Bentley said.
"If we go downrange, to our left and right is going to be an active or Reserve Soldier," Bentley said. "So this gives us the opportunity to understand what that will entail and to prepare for whatever is asked of us."
When individual augmentees like Bentley take on those roles, their units' relationship only grows stronger, Cole said, and as far as he's concerned, they carry out their duties as well as any active duty Soldier.
Even if there are disparities in training because National Guard Soldiers may not have as much time as active-duty units, it's important to remember the 101st ABN will be there to help develop their skills and make them more lethal warfighters, he said. Mistakes can be made and learned from so they aren't repeated in combat.
"Treat everybody equally," Cole said. "As long as we wear the uniform, we are the same. No matter the mission, we're going to do our duty on behalf of the American people, the American government and the Constitution."