BOISE, Idaho – “Basically, we’re infantry with explosives,” said Staff Sgt. Codey Johnson, a combat engineer and squad leader with the 833rd Engineer Company based in Ottumwa, Iowa.
In June, the Iowa National Guard engineer company traveled to Orchard Combat Training Center outside Boise, Idaho, for an exportable combat training capabilities exercise, or XCTC, known as Western Strike.
Johnson, a veteran of two tours in Afghanistan, is one of the more experienced combat engineers in his unit. For many of the younger Soldiers, this training exercise provided new experiences like overcoming obstacles in desert terrain and completing combat engineer tasks on a live-fire range. The exercise also provided an oppositional force – U.S. Soldiers posing as enemy combatants.
“They have their tactics and we have our own,” Johnson explained. “It’s kind of nice to see how our tactics compare to others.”
The engineers, who clear routes of improvised explosive devices and other hazards for U.S. troops overseas, spent a day on the demolition range setting explosive charges designed to destroy everything from razor wire to enemy tunnels, roads and runways.
“It’s not on our terms,” said Spc. Micah Elam. “We have to look for [the hazards] and find them.”
Elam, a combat engineer whose trip to Idaho was just his second annual training with the unit, said cover and concealment can be a challenge when working in terrain that doesn’t offer trees and vegetation that are common in places like Iowa. This means both the enemy and the engineers have to get creative.
“You get that reverse thinking,” Johnson said. “Like, how do you think [the enemy] is going to attack?”
Johnson said reconnaissance and preparation are key. The engineers first do a recon to determine the type of explosive needed to complete the mission. Next, they prepare the explosive charges to decrease the amount of “time on target” they spend at the site of the enemy obstacle. Last, the charges are emplaced, primed and set off at the target.
Members of the 833rd Engineer Company started their day on the demolition range with an individual demolition qualification consisting of C4 and detonation cord. They referred to it as a “confidence blow,” designed to build confidence and good habits in Soldiers working with increasingly dangerous explosives.
The engineers then worked with improvised Bangalore torpedoes designed to defeat obstacles like razor wire; shaped charges, intended to focus the energy of an explosive in a specific direction; and cratering charges, to be placed below ground, often in holes created by the shaped charges.
The engineers were able to work alongside Special Forces Soldiers to detonate expired munitions.
“Typically, we don’t see that unless we’re deployed,” Johnson said.
Brig. Gen. Stephen Osborn, deputy adjutant general of the Iowa National Guard, traveled to Idaho with other leaders, including Col. Christine Brooks and Command Sgt. Maj. Thomas Newton, the commander and senior enlisted leader of the 734th Regional Support Group.
Osborn, a career infantryman, addressed the engineers at the demolition range and thanked them for the unique skill set they bring to the fight – not only defeating enemy obstacles but also facilitating the mobility of friendly forces, like fellow infantry squads.
“You are great infantryman,” Osborn said. “You are great engineers.”