Under the cover of darkness, Pvt. Daniel P. Zambuto and the rest of his platoon were in pursuit of the stolen supply box when he thought, "My right foot's really cold. Why?" He realized that his boot had fallen off a few steps back and began to search for it in the tall brush on Fort Sill. Thankfully, he found it and thought, "Crisis averted."
Pvt. Zambuto had only been a member of Cerberus Battery, 5th Battalion, 5th Air Defense Artillery Regiment, 31st Air Defense Artillery Brigade, for two days before he found himself tired, cold, and bootless during Cerberus Stakes, a 36-hour, nonstop training exercise held by Cerberus Battery January 29-30, 2020.
Cerberus Stakes was conceptualized by Capt. Jordan D. Henrickson, the commander of Cerberus Battery, while deployed in Afghanistan. He realized soldiers lacked basic soldiering skills and, with the help of 1st Sgt. Jason D. Abitua, devised a plan to change the culture of air defense artillery.
Together the command team made a plan to give Cerberus Battery more training and Cerberus Stakes became the culminating event.
Capt. Henrickson tasked executive officer 1st Lt. Barron Lehleitner to plan the final exercise. After eight months of preparation, Cerberus Stakes came to fruition.
The first day of the exercise began with a 0330 recall and a 0430 report time. Once at the motor pool, soldiers concealed themselves with face paint, grabbed their gear, and convoyed to the field. The rest of the 36-hour exercise included land navigation, patrol base operations, reconnaissance, reacting to indirect fire, moving to contact, securing an objective, and combat casualty care.
Leaders of Cerberus Battery wanted to ensure that even though the event would be challenging, realistic, and stressful, it would also be fun and memorable. The last point of the land navigation portion, for example, took the platoons to the supply box, the same one Pvt. Zambuto pursued during the night. Each platoon acquired different keys during land navigation but only one key opened the box, which was full of snacks and caffeinated drinks.
In addition to the special touch of a treasure-filled supply box, they also attempted to supply the soldiers with chalk rounds. Although unsuccessful, they did manage to include green-colored smoke grenades into the training.
1st Sgt. Jason D. Abitua has been the first sergeant of Cerberus Battery for 18 months and helped plan and execute Cerberus Stakes.
Besides ensuring the exercise ran smoothly, he provided guidance to the participants.
"I would drop little gems to my soldiers," he said.
He gave them advice whenever he could to make the soldiers better and to push them in the right direction.
"A lot of soldiers haven't been in a position where they need to use this in real world," said 1st Sgt. Abitua. "We're doing a lot of things right now that aren't done anymore in air defense. They're not used to training like this. They're not used to thinking on the ground away from their Avengers."
For 1st Sgt. Abitua, the highlight of the exercise was watching his soldiers grow and enjoy the training.
"I had a private who couldn't get his smile off his face the entire time," 1st Sgt. Abitua said. "That made my day as a first sergeant to see him enjoy training like that."
Pvt. Charles G. McBride, a member of Cerberus for less than three months, enjoyed the exercise, especially a surprise attack in the middle of the night.
He had just finished pulling security and was trying to sleep when he heard someone ask for the challenge password. Once his platoon realized it was an attack, Pvt. McBride positioned himself to return fire while still in his sleeping bag.
This experience got him thinking, "If this was real, would I have reacted in the same way or would I have been scared?"
With the quick reaction of his team and their collective efforts, Pvt. McBride became confident that if the scenario had been real, his team would have responded the same way.
During Cerberus Stakes, Pvt. McBride learned about his own capabilities and leadership.
"I learned what I can endure, how much I could push myself to my limits, and if I needed to bypass those limits, I could to a certain extent," he said.
His platoon leaders demonstrated foresight and compassion.
"My leadership was always thinking three steps ahead of everybody else in our platoon," he said. "They always had a backup plan to the backup plan."
The way his leaders treated his platoon inspired him in how he wants to lead. He expected them to be tough but instead felt a kindred spirit with his leaders.
"They were just real people with the same problems we were going through. It was nice to know that we weren't the only ones dealing with it, that they felt what we felt and had sympathy towards it. When I eventually become a leader, I would like to look at my soldiers the same way," he said.
Despite the difficulty of 36 hours of nonstop training, the participants' morale was high.
Pvt. Zambuto said Cerberus Stakes was a learning experience that provided many opportunities to receive one-on-one instruction.
Pvt. McBride called Cerberus Battery his "second family."
"Everyone was welcoming when I first joined in, had no problem making friends," he said. They did not wait to see what kind of a person he was; they wanted to get to know him right away.
As for the exercise, he said, "I'm looking forward to doing that exercise again. It was really fun."
The command team is also pleased with the end result of Cerberus Stakes.
Capt. Henrickson said, "I don't think it could've really gone any better. We took them out of their comfort zone from relying on the Avenger platform and relying on a vehicle to, hey, you don't have this anymore. Now you have to carry your own weight."
1st Sgt. Abitua added, "We're changing the culture of air defense. We're getting back to the basics. We're getting back to the heritage of air defense to where you can go out and be by yourself and know that you can survive."
"Setbacks are okay in this battery," he concluded. "Through our lessons learned, we're going to be the most lethal force in all air defense."