FORT HOOD, Texas – Following the announcement for its call to overseas service as Task Force Spartan, Virginia Army National Guard’s (VAARNG) Fort Belvoir-based 29th Infantry Division (29th ID) successfully conducted its mobilization at North Fort Hood.
500 Soldiers from the division received and completed their culminating training exercise (CTE), a dynamic evaluation comprising of various mission simulations and Soldier readiness tasks guided by First Army’s Observer – Coach/Trainers (OC/Ts).
Coordination and support of the CTE were led by Soldiers from the 120th Infantry Brigade, Division West – First Army, alongside partners from the 188th Infantry Brigade, Division East – First Army, Army Central Command (ARCENT), as well as advanced echelon (ADVON) Soldiers from the 36th Infantry Division (36th ID), Texas Army National Guard (TXARNG), who were returning from a past year of service in Operation Spartan Shield (OSS).
Maj. Gen. Mark H. Landes, commanding general of First Army Division East and 29th ID Exercise Director, visited North Fort Hood and shared remarks about the combined efforts observed from all supporting units to the CTE.
“The priority is to use the exercise to best prepare 29th ID for the critical mission they will assume,” Landes stated. “I am appreciative of the professionalism and invested interest the entire team has displayed as they support the 29th ID before they go forward.”
With years of experience serving in and supporting combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, including five Army Security Force Assistance Brigades, Landes keenly understands the importance of Soldier readiness, and he thinks the 29th ID is prepared to support OSS.
Along with thoughts about any changes to the Global Force Management Allocation Plan impacting the presence of American forces in Kuwait, “I have noticed no notable adjustments,” said Landes. “The 29th ID has been preparing for this mission for quite some time. They will provide Mission Command to the region, and will be practiced in foreseeable missions they will assume.”
Landes further shared about his first impressions of the training environments at North Fort Hood that were provided to 29th ID Soldiers and 188th Inf. Bde. OC/Ts. North Fort Hood is one of Division West’s active Mobilization Force Generation Installations (MFGIs).
“My experiences on North Fort Hood are limited, but consistent with other post-mobilization facilities that I have observed,” said Landes. “The facilities here have provided the right amount of realism that Army divisions can expect as they prepare for deployment.”
Landes also talked about the U.S. Army People Strategy and how it relates to Total Force Readiness.
“People First is great, and I am excited to be a part of the change in priority,” Landes stated. “Pre-mobilization and partnerships are critical to our creating a common operating picture with all Soldiers from Active Duty, Army National Guard (ARNG), and the US Army Reserve (USAR), and ensures we build the right amount of readiness for specific tasks,” said Landes. “Total Force becomes the bottom-line. It is the way we operate and necessary to combat potential enemies.”
Landes concluded with a message to 29th ID as they approached their last few days in the U.S. prior to their take-off, “Thank you for your service, and we will do everything within our power to ensure you are prepared for the mission.”
Further actions demonstrated by other command leadership and participants in the CTE were carefully observed as 29th ID pressed on through numerous injects in the training.
Col. Jakob B. Larkowich, commander of the 188th Inf. Bde. Division East, and Chief of Training for the 29th ID CTE, oversaw his unit’s OC/Ts who carried out the direct line of effort in the advising and training for the 29th ID Soldiers.
“First Army is a critical enabler for our ARNG and Reserve formations. We allow these formations to use the limited available training time to train on required tasks and skills that truly enable readiness when our Nation calls,” said Larkowich. “In the case of the OSS mission, the secret ingredient to success is the ‘team of teams’ approach that brought together all stakeholders before and during the mobilization period, including participation by all in the Culminating Command Post Exercise. First Army East and West came together to plan, resource, and provide coaches for the event itself.”
Larkowich further highlighted about his time working alongside with 29th ID.
“The 29th ID has long been continually partnered with 188th Inf. Bde., as we’ve been working to assist with their preparation for OSS since early 2019. The division leveraged every opportunity over the past year and a half to build their team’s ability to serve as the Task Force Spartan Headquarters in the Middle East,” said Larkowich. “Notably, during their pre-mobilization, they had brought their staff and command post equipment to Fort Indiantown Gap last November for a Warfighter Exercise (WAREX). It was a privilege working with their whole staff, to include the commanding general Maj. Gen. John M. Rhodes, chief of staff Col. Jared Lake, assistant division commanders, and operations officers.”
When asked about 29th ID’s current readiness and their process for deployment validation, Larkowich described, “The 29th ID is very familiar with the role they’re about to assume, having mobilized for the same mission a few years ago. More importantly, they’re building on the efforts of the two previous Army National Guard headquarters, who served as Task Force Spartan – the 42nd Infantry Division (42nd ID) from the great State of New York, and the 36th ID from the great State of Texas. All of these formations, regardless of component, have had to overcome the same challenges every unit goes through when preparing for a specific role – assemble the team, train from individual to collective level, meet all individual readiness requirements, and move the formation from point A to point B. The only nuanced difference for our reserve components is that they have less scheduling flexibility than their active component counterparts to accomplish all of those tasks.”
Larkowich further shared how the running and oversight of the CTE consisted of global coordination and demonstrated excellence as well.
“The 120th Inf. Bde. truly put together a world class event supported by an exceptional installation. Our sister brigade resourced a lot of the training tools required, and our After Action Review (AAR) effectively identified how we will improve the next iteration of mobilizations,” he said. “ARCENT, the outgoing headquarters of 36th ID, and adjacent commands in the Middle East from 1st Theater Sustainment Command (1TSC), were able to successfully link into the exercise in real time. This provided both, a warm start for the incoming 29 ID’s readiness, and facilitated realistic training from the HALSS. North Fort Hood provided all of the necessary life support and resources for our mobilizing units.”
Larkowich concluded with reflections on the partnership with Soldiers of the 29th ID.
“As far as key points of success for the 29th ID themselves, the officers, non-commissioned officers, and Soldiers in the unit have the same background and experiences as their Active Component and Army Reserve counterparts – success for the Total Army was already built into our common standards, professional military education, and training,” he said. “I don’t have any message for the Soldiers of the 29 ID that they’re own leaders wouldn’t convey better, but as someone whose spent the past 23 years on Active Duty, I truly find it a privilege over the past couple of years working directly with our Guardsmen and Reservists.”
Working with and directly supporting all engagements of the 29th ID CTE, leadership and subordinate units of 120th Infantry Brigade also commended the hard work and the partnership effects with 188th Inf. Bde., Division East, and guest units during the CTE at North Fort Hood.
Col. Brian P. Wolford, commander of the 120th Inf. Bde. Division West, oversaw all of the required resources 120th Inf. Bde. supported for the incoming and outgoing divisions for OSS. He also shared his observations of the process, to include remarking how the mid and final AARs for 29th ID CTE were near perfect.
“Based on feedback from the 36th ID and with the expertise of the 1TSC, we added multiple sustainment injects to include Force Rotation planning and execution, Reception, Staging, and Onward Movement & Integration (RSOI) tasks, and several strategic transportation problems,” said Wolford.
“Planning for the 29th ID’s CTE is, in part, an evolutionary progress and is informed by each of the previous OSS Divisions. Lessons learned from 42nd ID’s rotation drove significant structural changes within the exercise, while recent input from ARCENT, 1TSC, and 36th ID, facilitated scenario scripting adaptions that better replicated the dynamic nature of the theater,” said Wolford. “In fact, planning for each OSS Division’s CTEs is not marked by a defined start or end point. For example, when 36th ID completed their Final Event Planning Conference with the 120th Inf. Bde., the 29th ID staff was also present to not only better understand their current mission sets, but ensure their Initial Event Planning conference opened the following day.”
The coordination of rotating units for the OSS mission from North Fort Hood continues as a part of the 120th Inf. Bde. mission.
“Our brigade will also be conducting three scripting conferences with ARCENT in the coming months,” Wolford added. “Those conferences will be informed by 29th ID while they are in theater, as we prepare the next follow-on division for OSS.”
Lt. Col. Jason A. Gleason, commander of 3-393 Brigade Engineer Battalion, 120th Inf. Bde., oversaw the direct coordination of the supporting elements running the back-end of the exercise, and shared about his duty experience and observations.
“This is my fourth division level CTE with 3-393 BEB and 120th Inf. Bde.,” said Gleason. “From corps to individual people, we have to synchronize a multitude of units and headquarters across all echelons of command to make this exercise work. Having all those folks rowing in the same direction is critical. Everybody has to be on the same sheet of music and play their tune. When we get it right, it becomes a symphony.”
“What continues to impress me is how we put everyone into this pot, stir it up, add some ingredients [OC/Ts] and ‘bam’...we’re cooking!” Gleason cleverly described. “We build this team from scratch every time and everybody involved took ownership of their job.”
Gleason commended 29th ID for their attentiveness to the training, “Working with 29th ID has been great. They are a learning and humble organization that strives to simply get better every day. This mindset resonated daily across their formation. To the division, you are a great unit and team, and have done a great job. You will do well deployed, and, do come home safe.”
Master Sgt. Mario Puente, operations noncommissioned officer in-charge (NCOIC) for 3-393 Brigade Engineer Battalion, 120th Inf. Bde, also shared what had to happen for a successful CTE.
“My role was to ensure every Soldier knew exactly where to be within the provided North Fort Hood facilities and where to be involved in the 29th ID’s in-processing and training,” said Puente. “A lot of moving pieces go into a division level CTE, and it took constant coordination to ensure everyone knew where to go for the resources they needed and ensure everyone was on the same sheet of music. Overall, it was a great effort from all the supporting sections, and it was a pleasure working with and supporting our guest OC/Ts from Division East, to include the ADVON from the 36th ID.”
ADVON personnel from Task Force Spartan, who were also organic to 36th ID, partook as additional support and observer roles to 29th ID’s preparation. Master Sgt. Shannon Northup, G-1 Sergeant Major for Task Force Spartan and G-1 NCOIC for the 36th ID at his home station, shared his observations of the work and his demobilization at North Fort Hood.
“During the 36th ID rotation I was assigned as the Task Force Spartan G-1 Sergeant Major, which allowed me to work closely with the ARCENT G-1 (Rear and Forward),” said Northup. “Throughout 36th ID's rotation, the G-1 sections worked together to refine several personnel related processes that improved efficiency and quality customer service to our down-trace units. During the 29th ID CTE, I worked closely with the simulations cell to ensure that the Master Scenario Events List (MESL) injects provided valuable content based off of the real-world challenges we experienced in the Task Force Spartan area of responsibility (AOR).”
Northup shared his observations while being paired with the 29th ID G-1 counterparts and their First Army OC/T.
“I had a great experience working with the 29ID’s G-1, throughout their CTE. Maj. Ryan Tutton, the brigade S-1 for 188th Inf. Bde. who OC/Td 29th ID’s G-1, provided extremely value oversight to them,” added Northup. “From the first impression until the CTE’s end exercise (ENDEX), they maintained a high level of professionalism and an extremely positive attitude. They brought a lot of energy and excitement for their mobilization.
Northup took notice of changes for 36th ID’s demobilization while he compared to his previous mobilization experiences since his time with the TXARNG as well.
“The entire DEMOB process has been improved and streamlined to maximize efficiency, and reduce the stress on our Soldiers returning home from deployment,” he noted. “Technological advancements have allowed for more comprehensive communication, and seem to have improved both, the medical and administrative out-processing requirements.”
Northup concluded his remarks for 29th ID Soldiers with praise and advice.
“As the 29th ID prepares to assume the role of Task Force Spartan, their G-1 is going to bring a wealth of knowledge and fresh ideas for their way forward,” he said. “To all of the 29ID Soldiers I wish you good luck, safety, and success on your rotation. Stay focused on doing your job, taking care of your Soldiers, and finding time to speak with your family back home.”
During the CTE, several action officers from the Higher, Adjacent, Lower, Supported and Supporting (HALSS), a response cell responsible for the back-end management of simulated injects throughout 29th ID’s mission scenarios, shared perspectives about their roles, daily work flow, and overcoming training day challenges.
Lt. Col. Thomas B. Fuller, deputy commanding officer for 120th Inf. Bde., Division West, remarks, “As the DCO, I have been with the 120th Inf. Bde. for three years, and have been involved with every aspect of our ARNG and USAR forces’ mobilization and demobilization that happen here. But, this was the first time I got to actually be the role player as a brigade commander for a unit’s CTE. It was really enjoyable being a part of the interworking of this exercise, but very challenging considering I was going through my own transition at the same time.”
Fuller reflected on several hurdles that occurred in the HALSS cell, and how their operation developed into a positive work flow.
“The biggest challenge for our section was getting the whole exercise storyline down into a single flow pattern. Everyone is so busy trying to get valuable injects into the exercise, and so it becomes hard to keep everything straight,” Fuller said. “In the real world, we would have several hundred people in a brigade tracking all the data and reporting on what was happening in and outside the unit. During the exercise, our section only had two of us role playing every position, so it was difficult at times to keep everything flowing accurately.”
But those challenges were overcome.
“Several sections really stepped up and led the charge to making a difference, and that is what made this exercise matter,” he said.
Fuller also addressed the importance of Army Total Force Policy and partnership.
“The ARNG and the USAR make up an incredibly diverse force multiplier. We [the Army] had been in Afghanistan for almost 20 years. If it wasn’t for the Guard and Reserve forces, everyone on Active Duty would have been spending every other year deployed, at a minimum. You just cannot express enough how much a difference it makes having these men and women stepping up to serve their country.”
Maj. Jefferson Golemon, a simulation officer from the 120th Inf. Bde., Division West worked as part of the HALSS cell that processed scenarios for the 29th ID CTE.
"My job is to oversee and manage the systems we use to conduct an array of computerized simulations throughout the exercise,” said Golemon. "Each day of training, we are constantly implementing various scenarios used to enhance the training for 29th ID. There are a lot of moving parts to running simulations, as it requires multiple end-users from our cell, who monitor and record 29th ID's effects from the training.”
“By replicating events based on previous experiences from the actual theater, we strive to make 29th ID's area of operations within their training environment as realistic as possible,” he added. “The idea is to stimulate 29th ID's command group's work flow and Military Decision Making Process (MDMP) in ways our OC/Ts would expect them to use during their upcoming deployment. Aside from the planned injects they are being tested on, we also include over 300 different ‘white noise' simulations that range from vehicle and aircraft movement, air traffic control communications, as well as ‘mocking’ numerous communication activities between civilian population centers, in and around their designated area of operations (AO)."
1st Lt. Peter M. Neil, a tactical director officer for 69th Air Defense Artillery Brigade (ADA), also participated in the CTE for the HALSS cell, by monitoring actions taken by 29th ID’s in response to ADA related injects.
“My role in this CTE is to act as if I am an ADA Brigade Commander amongst several adjacent units within the simulation,” said Neil. “We’re ensuring messages from ADA assets are sent to 29th ID, and monitoring how they handle the injects in the scenario. Injects ranged from logistics, Air and Missile Defense Planning Control Systems (AMDPCS) checks, and movement of ADA assets across the AO. The best part of this experience was watching when 29th ID received an ADA inject, and how their own sections included the data to AMDPCS and exercised contingency missions.”
Several Soldiers and officers from 29th ID shared their take about who they were and how well the training was received.
Col. Jared D. Lake, chief of staff for the 29th ID, shared reflections on the journey to forward deploying OSS.
“We have had a tight partnership with Col. Larkowich and his team from the very beginning,” said Lake. “They have worked diligently through our preparation, starting back with our Warfighter 21-2 orders production process, and carried us through its execution. Throughout the entire process, the 188th Inf. Bde. provided valuable assessment and constructive feedback to allow us to see ourselves and continue to improve. That was critical for us as we transitioned about 50% of our staff and, due to COVID, this was the first time the staff was able to train together in person.”
“Throughout our CTE,188th Inf. Bde. continued their integration and partnership with us to ensure Maj. Gen. Rhodes’s training objectives were met and focused on his command priorities,” he stated. “Their experience in supporting multiple units gave them the ability to not only help us see ourselves and identify areas to refine our headquarters, but they were able to share perspective from many other partners they’ve supported.”
Lake concluded, “There were two main aspects of their integration that yielded the most benefit to the 29th ID. First, their integration from start to finish enabled relationships that fostered teamwork and consistent improvement. Secondly, their ability to draw out dialogue during AARs effectively focused on areas that were important to our command group and mission. We could not have been as successful without their support.”
Maj. Michael Esposito, Air & Missile Defense Chief and G-3/9 operations, 29th ID, shared his past military service during the CTE, to include comparing a previous 29th ID mobilization and deployment to his next mission with Task Force Spartan.
“This is my second ARNG deployment, fifth overall, three with the U.S. Navy. Differences? Wow. In 2016, I mobilized from North Fort Hood back in the same position for the 29th ID's last deployment, and the differences are remarkable,” said Esposito. “In the simulation, there is a whole compound of buildings now replicating what we will experience once we fall in under ARCENT. First Army really knocked it out of the park!”
Esposito explained what his team’s function will be for Task Force Spartan.
“The Air & Missile Defense team has two unique functions. We serve as US Army Central's Theater Missile Warning desk, providing early warning of air attack to all US Army forces in Central Command's AOR. Further from the flagpole, we operate two Sentinel radars, surveillance assets providing continuous awareness for the Combined Forces Air Component Commander,” said Esposito.
Esposito further shares about his team’s experience and the quality of Soldiers from 29th ID that Task Force Spartan will receive for the OSS deployment.
“On the surface I am an Air Defender, but when you look closer, I am so much more; certified in Public Health, a Master Continuity Practitioner, and government civilian employee to a three-star Joint Staff responsible for global cyber defense. Not to mention, my noncommissioned officer in-charge, Sgt. 1st Class Romando A. Green, who led my team with me in our last deployment, is like a superhero,” said Esposito. “In his ‘free’ time, he is a facilities manager for the FDA, an extremely successful event planner in Washington, D.C., and oh, did I mention he is an architect who helped design and run his parents’ hotel in Jamaica? An unsuspecting duo, who can solve any problem and accomplish any mission.”
During the 29th ID CTE, Esposito also shared valuable feedback about the OC/Ts. Maj. Kyle Vonderheide, an ADA officer for 1-346 ADA Battalion, 188th Inf. Bde., served as an OC/T who directly worked with and coached Esposito’s team.
“When the OC/T appears over your shoulder, you know what unfolds before you is important,” said Esposito. “Maj. Vonderheide opened my eyes to perspectives and factors I never knew were in play. He explained how commands as high as US Strategic Command were in the background of the battle drills my junior Soldiers were executing on the missile warning desk.”
When asked about how the simulation injects impacted his team’s development and readiness, Esposito described and compared the experience to previous trainings in the VAARNG.
“These injects certainly had a different feel than the typical division WAREX, which involved large scale combat operations. On the first day of the CTE, it was as if you asked the staff to ‘drive’ 40mph in a 70mph zone. The first mock ballistic missile launch in the exercise was memorable, and my team experienced some confusion, concern, and anxiety, but asked a lot of great questions. Having that level of engagement galvanized the relationship between my team and the Battle Captains; this will pay dividends throughout the whole deployment.”
LTC Susan Lyon, Chief of Information Operations, 29th ID, shared about her incoming team’s role to Task Force Spartan, while looking back on her experiences.
“This is my 5th deployment overall, my second with the VAARNG. I also deployed in 29th ID’s previous mission back in 2016,” said Lyon. “Our information operations section will coordinate and synchronize non-lethal effects for the mission.”
In regards to systems and tools used for her division’s mobilization, “We were able to use the same Task Force Spartan information portal and operations order that the 36th ID is currently using in country. This helped make our training realistic.”
Lyon shared her observations about North Fort Hood compared to her previous mobilization experience and how its facilities made difference for their CTE.
“Last time, our unit had to set up DRASH tents in a flooded field for our CTE. This time, it was much better having hard structure buildings, so we could focus more on the CTE and spend less time and effort getting the Tactical Operations Center (TOC) set up. Having a TOC building was a great plus, and greatly contributed to the training environment.”
When asked about VAARNG readiness and importance to the upcoming OSS mission, Lyon felt humbled and confident about ARNG Soldiers called to service in support of the Nation’s defense.
“I think the National Guard serves a vital role in that we can surge when our nation needs additional support,” said Lyon. “We also bring all of our expertise from our civilian jobs, and when added to our military experience, we bring a lot to the fight.”
The CTE furthered First Army’s mission of supporting readied, multi-component Army forces for deployment in support of combatant commander requirements around the world.
Division East and Division West continue to carry a strong tradition of being the Active Duty components that specializes in producing readied multi-component army forces under the oldest and long-established First Army, a recognized corps unit under U.S. Army Forces Command, U.S. Army.