FORT MCCOY, Wis. – In approaching the entrance gates of Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, Soldiers are quickly refocused to COVID-19 as they drive by the posted mitigation efforts required to enter the installation. A continuation of reminders surrounds the post with mobile hand-wash stations that are placed alongside buildings and busy streets, temperature checks are conducted, and training units are broken down into smaller groups called “Cohorts”.
After operating for months in a virtual world, the U.S. Army Reserve, in coordination with the active Army component, executed Operation Ready Warrior, its first “crawl-walk” small-scale collective training exercise since the introduction of COVID-19.
“Everyone who came (into Fort McCoy) had an initial screening and were given an initial COVID test,” said Sgt. Maj. Steven Stinsky, Exercise Control Noncommissioned Officer-In-Charge, 78th Training Division, the lead unit proponent for the exercise. “Then as they trained, they employed the basic social distancing requirements, wearing of masks, and they stayed with their training cohorts so that if there was an outbreak within their cohort, then only one part of the operation may be compromised.”
First Army’s 181st Multi-functional Training Brigade, headquartered at Fort McCoy, augmented nearly 55 observer coach/trainers from their active and Army Reserve battalions to support the 78th Training Division and the estimated 1,500 Soldiers taking part in the training. One of the initial issues that 181 MFTB encountered was out-of-state Army Reserve Soldier’s quarantine requirements.
Once a Soldier, who has an out-of-state job, crosses the border into Wisconsin, civilian employers may require them to conduct two weeks of unpaid quarantine, due to COVID risk mitigation requirements. This developed into an issue because now the staff was faced with the fact that if they direct Soldiers to come in for two weeks of training, they would be sending some of them back to their civilian careers with two weeks of unpaid time. Active component Soldiers stepped in and were able to support in place of some Army Reserve personnel who were impacted by this dilemma.
“We were tasked to augment 37 for this rotation and with the couple of active duty personnel that are assigned to those battalions, we managed to get 38 for the actual training,” said Maj. Randal Baumgart, training officer for the brigade support element.
According to Army Reserve Lt. Col. Kelly Mau, battalion commander for the 181st MFTB’s active component 1st Battalion, 351st Regiment (Brigade Support Battalion), Operation Ready Warrior provided the opportunity for unit leaders to revalidate their Soldier basic skills.
“This exercise gave leaders and Soldiers the opportunity to catch up with the latest that the Army has to offer, to include the new Individual Weapons Qualification, (Army Combat Fitness Test), (Combat Life Saver) and (Tactical Combat Casualty Care) skills,” said Mau. “ORW provided opportunity during the COVID-19 environment to build readiness in preparation to a mobilization or deployment.”
The training conducted at ORW included Reception, Staging Onward movement and Integration operations, COVID Mitigation Training, Individual Weapons Preliminary Marksmanship Instruction and qualification on the new Weapon Qualification (IAW TC 3-20.40), Crew-Serve Weapon PMI and qualification, Army Combat Fitness Training OIC/NCOIC certification and familiarization, Army Warrior Task (Shoot, move, medicate, Fire team and Buddy team event), and Day Land Navigation.
The Army Reserve’s 85th U.S. Army Reserve Support Command, headquarterd in the Chicagoland area, shares in a unique multi-component partnership with First Army. In support of ORW, the 85th USARSC provided a handful of its training support and logistic support battalion OC/Ts from its overall 45 battalions located across 25 states, which make up half of the First Army formation.
Brig. Gen. Ernest Litynski, commanding general of the 85th USARSC, stated that the mission was for Soldiers to build on ten-level tasks and to work up to basic collective readiness capabilities required by Army Reserve Soldiers, ahead of mobilizations and deployments. However, he also focused in on the morale, health and welfare of Soldiers after being in a virtual world for the past several months.
“The biggest expectation we had was getting Soldiers back into uniform and doing basic skills. The morale, health and welfare of individuals not seeing each other for four or five months had a huge bearing on what Soldiers wanted to do. I don’t believe we had the morale, health and welfare that we wanted, so just having troops come back together and see familiar faces and taking care of each other was my number one expectation,” said Litynski. “Second expectation was that we remove some of the rust, and started moving forward again to do what we need to do for both individual and collective readiness from near-peer threats.”
While ORW prepares Soldiers to get back to the basics, it also prepared them for the new Army Combat Fitness Test as well as the Army’s new individual weapons qualification that will take effect on October 1, 2020.
“The new army individual weapons qualification emphasizes on the agility and speed to react on the battlefield to deter the enemy,” said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Richard Begonia, OC/T, 1-351 BSB.
One of the clearest changes in IWQ is moving from the three positions: prone, prone supported and kneeling to now operating four different tables: prone unsupported, prone supported, kneeling supported and standing supported while utilizing a V-Tac barrier wall.
According to Sgt. 1st Class Eric Monson, Army Reserve OC/T assigned to the 1st Battalion, 383rd Regiment in Des Moines, Iowa, this training will “get Soldiers used to transitioning battle positions and magazine changes on the fly.”
The medical Situational Training Exercise lanes presented various tasks on the opposite end of the spectrum such as how to evaluate a casualty, how to move a liter, and treating shock and burns.
Sgt. Edward Fahy, 88H Cargo Specialist assigned to the 623rd Inland Cargo Transfer Company, West Palm Beach, Florida, was one of many Army Reserve Soldiers participating in the training.
“It’s been going great,” said Fahy. “Everyone has had some great motivation.”
Stinsky shared that the basic tasks were coming together along with Soldiers honing their marksmanship skills, but a great deal of their effort went into COVID-19 mitigation to make the training become a reality.
“A lot of the mitigation strategies and protections that are in place for the Soldiers that allow them to train safely, the 78th Training Division took the lead to coordinate through a wide-variety of units, across the military and federal government to get the data we need in order to create these policies. Some of the things we’re doing here are serving as benchmarks for training going forward,” said Stinsky. “No one knows how long this pandemic or whatever the next tragedy will be, but we’re building solid practices that are effective for a wide-variety of incidents to keep Soldiers safe, and allow them to train to carry out their wartime mission.”
“I’m really grateful that the leadership that we have in place here was given the opportunity to lean forward and flex and show what the Army can do,” said Stinsky.
Litynski shared the exercise was a team effort from the reserve and active components.
“I think it was incredible to see all the different stakeholders come together. Everyone from garrison, Col. (Michael) Poss and his team did everything to open Fort McCoy for training,” said Litynski. And to bring in our partners from First Army, and our Soldiers and tying that all together with the compo 3 Soldiers from the 78th TD, the lead proponent for this exercise. None of this happens without teamwork, regardless if it’s descaled to the Operation Ready Warrior, or scaled up to the CSTX-level, it’s all about partnership.”
“The biggest take-away with COVID-19 is that we are not afraid of it. We’re fighting degraded and to me, it’s no different than fighting with limited visibility, night operations or in a nuclear biological CBRN environment when we put our masks on,” said Litynski. “We’re working degraded but that’s what we do in the Army. We fight no matter the conditions. We adapt and overcome.”