By 1st Lt. Samantha DiMauroJuly 30, 2019
FORT MCCOY, Wis.- Students from the 1st Battalion, 426th Regiment (Field Artillery) Regional Training Institute (RTI), the Wisconsin National Guard's educational institution, completed their culminating live-fire exercise (LFX) here, July 27.
Through the Wisconsin Military Academy, three different field artillery qualification courses trained concurrently at Ft. McCoy: Class 002 advanced leader course (ALC) for 13B (cannon crewmember); the 13B military occupational specialist re-classification training (MOS-T) course; and 13F (joint fire support specialist) MOS-T course. They are all scheduled to graduate Monday, July 29, 2019.
Students from both MOS-T classes and the ALC class worked and trained together as complete fire teams, a rare training opportunity in most environments but a standard set-up at the 426th RTI.
"It's perfect how they did it. I didn't expect the design of the course at all," said Sgt. Jake Rizkallah, a 13B ALC student. I anticipated classroom work, and when it came time for live fire, I thought I would have to build a full team solely from my class of section chiefs, but that wasn't the case. "When we realized we were [going to work with the 13B and 13F MOS-T students], it amped up what we were expecting [to be capable of]. It was about as good as it can get," said Rizkallah.
ALC is 24 days while the MOS-T courses are about 21, so Soldiers have a few good weeks to build relationships, learn from each other, and grow together as a team. Sgt. Austin Topolski, a student in the 13B MOS-T course who was assigned to Rizkallah's fire team for the LFX, was also excited about the arrangement.
"It was nice to bounce ideas and questions off the ALC students," Topolski said. As a former Marine Corps diesel mechanic, Topolski joined the Michigan National Guard in 2018. He decided to learn an entirely new occupation and start a career as a cannon crewmember. "I always made fun of field artillery until I got into it, and this is good work. I trained hard and got as much out of it as I could," he said. "[The job] makes you tired quick but it's a lot of good fun with a good group of guys."
Rizkallah is currently assigned to Alpha Battery, 119th Field Artillery Regiment in Port Huron, Mich., while Topolski is assigned to Bravo Battery in Alma, Michigan. They fully anticipate working together again.
"If I take a [position as a section chief], I'll be going over to his battery," Rizkallah said. "And I didn't know him before we got here."
It isn't a surprise for students training together here to work with each other at their assigned units or in a deployed environment. Because of this, camaraderie and team-building are just as important as the mechanical skills students gain.
"[Depending on the number of students we are tasked with per year,] we design the courses concurrently to utilize the experiential learning model method of instruction within our courseware," said Ssg. Matthew Schoff, a 13B instructor with the 426th RTI. "We also utilize peer-to-peer instruction to build upon leadership skills and trust among the students while the instructor facilitates the learning."
With the One Army School System, the 426th RTI receives students from Active Duty, Reserve, and National Guard for each course. About 40 of the students graduating are from the National Guard or Reserve Component.
"This schoolhouse prides itself on the number of students and the quality of training that these students get from us," said Schoff, who has personally graduated over 500 students.
On July 29, the 426th RTI graduated 49 students between the three courses: 18 section chiefs, 18 cannon crew members and 13 joint fire support specialists.
The 13B advanced leader course is designed to certify section chiefs who lead their cannon crews and is a part of the Army's noncommissioned officer education system for Soldiers seeking the skills and qualifications they need for promotion to the rank of staff sergeant. The final graduation requirement was to safely chief four rounds of team live fire with an M777 A2 155-mm Howitzer, one of two types of cannons students fired during their LFX.
Each Howitzer operates with a crew of 8 Soldiers. Everyone has their own, definitive role, whether it's running for ammo and propellants, loading the cannon, or communicating with the Fire Direction Center (FDC). The section chief is the primary overseer and makes sure everyone is doing their job safely and to standard.
"The section chief is here to verify safety on everything," said Schoff. "We train everyone going to the [skill level 30] ALC course that 'Your job is to verify safety. You're the staff sergeant; you no longer help with everything that your crew is doing. Safety is always the first in line. It does no good to help your crew out if you lose sight of safety.'"
When the action started, Rizkallah took a position close enough to see every moving part and far enough away to let his crew do their work. Topolski's job was to drop the loading tray after the ammo was loaded and wait for standby. When everything was clear, the firer pulled the lanyard to launch a 93lb, 155mm projectile at a maximum range of 24.7km into the barren hills of Ft. McCoy's artillery range.
The students switch positions to get hands-on experience with every skill and task they've learned. Once the rounds start firing, it's clear they received the training they needed to become a seamlessly executed, well-oiled machine. The standard for the M777 A2 Howitzer is three rounds per minute for three minutes, and the Soldiers with the 426th RTI met the standard during their final LFX.
"I love field artillery because it's a very team-oriented MOS," said Schoff. "Everybody needs to be strong and able to work together to make it happen."