FORT HOOD, Texas – Following the announcement for its call to overseas service to support Operation Spartan Shield, the Virginia Army National Guard’s 29th Infantry Division (29th ID) successfully conducted its post-mobilization at North Fort Hood.
Five hundred Soldiers from the division completed their culminating training exercise (CTE), a dynamic evaluation comprising various mission simulations and Soldier readiness tasks, supported by First Army’s Observer Coach/Trainers (OC/Ts).
Coordination and support of the CTE were led by Soldiers from First Army Division West's 120th Infantry Brigade, alongside partners from the First Army Division East's 188th Infantry Brigade, Army Central Command (ARCENT), and advanced echelon Soldiers from the Texas Army National Guard's 36th Infantry Division, who were returning from a year of service in Operation Spartan Shield (OSS).
Maj. Gen. Mark H. Landes, commanding general of First Army Division East and the 29th ID exercise director, visited North Fort Hood and shared remarks about the combined efforts observed from all supporting units during 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.
“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," he said.
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 said. “Pre-mobilization and partnerships are critical to our creating a common operating picture with all Soldiers from Active Duty, Army National Guard, and the U.S. Army Reserve, and ensures we build the right amount of readiness for specific tasks. Total Force becomes the bottom line. It is the way we operate and is necessary to combat potential enemies.”
Playing a key role throughout the exercise was First Army OC/Ts. Col. Jakob B. Larkowich, commander of the 188th Infantry Brigade and Chief of Training for the 29th ID CTE, oversaw his unit’s OC/Ts as they advised and helped train 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,” Larkowich said. “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 highlighted his time working alongside the 29th ID ever since their pre-mobilization prior to arriving at North Fort Hood.
“The 29th ID has continually partnered with the 188th Infantry Brigade, 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,” Larkowich said. “Notably, during their pre-mobilization, they had brought their staff and command post equipment to Fort Indiantown Gap, Pa., last November for a Warfighter Exercise. It was a privilege working with their whole staff, including 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 said, “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 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.”
Larkowich further shared how the running and oversight of the CTE consisted of global coordination and demonstrated excellence.
“The 120th Infantry Brigade 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 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 were able to successfully link into the exercise in real-time. This provided both a warm start for the incoming 29th ID’s readiness and facilitated realistic training. 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. “As someone who has 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.”
Lt. Col. Jason A. Gleason, commander of 3-393 Brigade Engineer Battalion, 120th Infantry Brigade, oversaw the direct coordination of the supporting elements running the back-end of the exercise.
“This is my fourth division level CTE with 3-393 BEB and the 120th Infantry Brigade,” Gleason said. “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. We build this team from scratch every time and everybody involved took ownership of their job.”
Gleason commended the 29th ID for its attentiveness to the training.
“Working with the 29th ID has been great,” he said. “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 for the 3-393 Brigade Engineer Battalion, 120th Infantry Brigade, also shared what led to 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,” Puente said. “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.”
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),” Northup said. “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 injects provided valuable content based off of the real-world challenges we experienced in the Task Force Spartan area of responsibility.”
Northup shared his observations on being paired with the 29th ID G-1 counterparts and their First Army OC/Ts.
“I had a great experience working with the 29th ID’s G-1, throughout their CTE. Maj. Ryan Tutton, the brigade S-1 for 188th Infantry Brigade, who OC/Td the 29th ID’s G-1, provided extremely valuable oversight to them,” Northup said. “From the first impression until the CTE’s end, they maintained a high level of professionalism and an extremely positive attitude. They brought a lot of energy and excitement for their mobilization.”
Northup concluded his remarks about 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 29th ID 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 supported the Higher, Adjacent, Lower, Supported, and Supporting (HALSS) cell, which maintained responsibility for the back-end management of simulated injects. They shared perspectives about their roles, daily workflow, and overcoming training day challenges.
Lt. Col. Thomas B. Fuller, deputy commanding officer for the 120th Infantry Brigade, remarked, “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.”
Fuller reflected on several hurdles that occurred in the HALSS cell, and how their operation developed into a positive workflow.
“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 make 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 have 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 Infantry Brigade, 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,” Golemon said. "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 run 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. The idea is to stimulate 29th ID's command group's workflow and Military Decision Making Process in ways our OC/Ts would expect them to use during their upcoming deployment.”
1st Lt. Peter M. Neil, a tactical director officer for 69th Air Defense Artillery Brigade, also worked in the HALSS cell during the CTE, monitoring actions taken by 29th ID 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,” Neil said. “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 checks, and movement of ADA assets across the AO.”
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,” he said. “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 Infantry Brigade 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 percent of our staff and, due to COVID, this was the first time the staff was able to train together in person. Throughout our CTE, the 188th Infantry Brigade continued its integration and partnership with us to ensure Maj. Gen. Rhodes’s training objectives were met and focused on his command priorities.”
The methodical process leading up to the CTE paid off, both before and during the exercise.
“There were two main aspects of their integration that yielded the most benefit to the 29th ID,” Lake said. “First, their integration from start to finish enabled relationships that fostered teamwork and consistent improvement. Secondly, their ability to draw out the 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 and Missile Defense Chief and G-3/9 operations for the 29th ID, talked about his past military service during the CTE, including 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,” he said. “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. 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 and Missile Defense team has two unique functions. We serve as U.S. Army Central's Theater Missile Warning desk, providing early warning of air attack to all US Army forces in Central Command's AOR,” he explained, “Further from the flagpole, we operate two Sentinel radars, surveillance assets providing continuous awareness for the Combined Forces Air Component Commander.”
Esposito had high praise for the OC/Ts. Maj. Kyle Vonderheide, an ADA officer for 1-346 ADA Battalion, 188th Infantry Brigade, served as an OC/T who worked with and coached Esposito’s team.
“When the OC/T appears over your shoulder, you know what unfolds before you is important,” Esposito said. “Maj. Vonderheide opened my eyes to perspectives and factors I never knew were in play. He explained how commands as high as U.S. 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 training in the National Guard.
“The injects certainly had a different feel than the typical Division Warfighter Exercise, which involved large-scale combat operations,” he said. “On the first day of the CTE, it was as if you asked the staff to drive 40 miles per hour in a 70 mile per hour 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.”
The CTE furthered the First Army’s mission of supporting readied, multi-component army forces for deployment in support of combatant commander requirements around the world.