FORT WAINWRIGHT, Alaska – Soldiers of 70th Brigade Engineer Battalion, known as the Kodiaks, were recently conducting live-fire training in Fort Wainwright’s Yukon Training Area when they had to adjust fire – literally and metaphorically – for their real-life bear brothers.
“Their training has been overrun by black bears," said Command Sgt. Maj. Joseph Gaskin, senior enlisted leader for 1st Infantry Brigade Combat Team, the parent unit for 70th BEB.
Wildlife encounters are a common experience for units training in Alaska, though interactions with moose and ravens are generally more frequent in the central part of the state than bear encounters. The 326-page training range safety publication for U.S. Army Alaska explains exactly what to do should troops in the training area see an animal.
The regulation states: “If units observe wildlife in the firing fan on a range or in a training area during live fire exercises, immediately cease firing and report the location and number of animals to Range Operations Fire Desk Operator.”
The Kodiaks’ battle captain, Capt. Connor Klemenhagen made the initial call to Range Operations requesting support, and Bureau of Land Management law enforcement ranger Jonathan Priday was one of the officials called out to assess and assist.
“As soon as I got on scene, there was a bear standing right there at the headquarters tent,” he said. Priday observed as many as four different bears visiting the area during the training, which ran from Aug. 18 to 27.
Priday worked with conservation law enforcement officer Clint Shahan of the Fort Wainwright Police Department to manage the encounters and discourage the bears from entering the area. The officers inspected the occupied locations of the training area and directed the unit to secure food and remove trash from the vicinity of the bivouac sites.
The officers also used firecracker and beanbag rounds from shotguns as well as vehicle sirens and flashing lights to discourage the bears from returning.
Capt. Sarah Plantamura, Bravo Company commander, said that she saw the bears but was confident in the unit’s response.
“I did see some bears last night,” she said. “We slept in the conexes last night for our protection.” She added the company set out a bear guard, which had not been done before. “It’s important now, and we’ve got a lot of good NCOs out here with a lot of bear spray that are handling it.” Plantamura herself was also carrying bear spray as she led her soldiers through the training.
The focus of the training for 70th BEB was buddy team, fire team, and squad live-fire exercises.
The battalion was able to complete the training despite the bears, though one soldier had to be taken out of the field after he was bitten on the shoulder by a bear while in his sleeping bag. He said he was sleeping when it happened and that at first it felt like someone was nudging him awake before he felt the pressure and pain of the bite and pulled away. The soldier was taken to Bassett Army Community Hospital for evaluation and treatment and released the same day.
Maj. Charles Matthews, battalion operations officer, explained the sequence of training the soldiers were accomplishing in the training area.
“This is part of the certification process for all of 70th BEB,” he said. “We’ll certify teams here, and then at another site we’ll certify engineer squads, and that’s the preparation for platoon certifications for the maneuver task force. Then we’ll go into the brigade exercise. This is all part of the training process from the basic soldier and team, all the way up to the brigade.”
Matthews said the training began with a 13-mile ruck march that started in the dark early morning hours before moving into team lanes where pairs and then fire teams of soldiers would patrol along a course and engage targets as they approached. The soldiers used blank rounds during the first iteration before walking the route a second time using live rounds.
“The team leader has an opportunity to solve a problem, put his soldiers in play, and engage the targets with the resources they have. The goal for the engineer companies is certified squads. After this, they’ll go to a squad lane where they’ll have to do a breach. They’ll move through an area, and there will be an enemy that they have to engage and an obstacle to breach to be able to move through and finish their objectives,” Matthews said. “This is something you have to do routinely to maintain proficiency. These aren’t uncommon tasks for us; this is just in the training cycle.”
While routine for the unit, this was the first time doing live fire in the field for Pfc. Stoney Tolenna and Pfc. Aquilas Cano, who were paired together for the training.
Tolenna, at Fort Wainwright for his first duty station, said, “It was hard. It took a lot of hard work and teamwork. Together we could accomplish it all though. I think it was great.”
He said he enjoys Alaska. “There’s a lot of nature, it reminds me of home,” Tolenna said, even though he hails from Micronesia, a tropical archipelago located over 4,900 miles away near the equator.
Cano is also from a warmer home region, though one a bit closer to Alaska.
“I’m used to warm weather, I’m from California,” he said. “I’m not really used to it yet, but it’s beautiful. You got the views and the weather and animals. Although the bears can be intimidating, but it’s pretty nice over here, and it’s just very quiet. It’s excellent.”