FORT BRAGG, N.C. - Pvt. Brandon Thomas felt a nudge against his shoulder and he was off, sprinting through swirling clouds of smoke, his ears ringing from the artillery rounds impacting nearby and the clattering roar of machine gun fire behind him. Coming to a slamming halt against a concrete wall, he paused for a quick second as his squad formed into a tight stack, sweat dripping into his eyes, and then, on the command of his squad leader, Thomas pushed into the enemy building. Time seemed to slow, muscle memory took over, and Thomas's M4 carbine was suddenly up, moving, scanning every corner of the room. An enemy silhouette appeared. Bang! Bang! He put two rounds into it.
"Room clear!" he called.
This was training, but for Thomas, who has yet to deploy, it was an eye-opening preview of what real combat is like.
Replicating as closely as possible the experience of combat was the goal during the combined-arms, live fire training conducted recently by platoons from 2nd Battalion, 325th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division.
"I do believe this training helps a lot as far as trusting your buddy, knowing he's going to do everything he is supposed to do," said Thomas, an infantryman with Company B, 2nd Bn., 325th A.I.R from Pleasantville, Iowa.
"It's probably the best training we do," Thomas said.
To add to the realism of the exercise, the Paratroopers involved in the training first had to work their way through a variety of different missions over the course of several days before conducting the live fire assault.
During the training, the Paratroopers were based at a camp made to resemble an actual Forward Operating Base in Iraq or Afghanistan, complete with trailers to sleep in and a mess hall to eat in. From there, they were dispatched to "villages" in the surrounding area where they had to interact with local citizens to gather information on enemy activities. The intelligence they received depended on how well they were able to engage with the local leaders.
Maj. Eric Flesch, the battalion operations officer, said the Paratroopers were never given a blueprint of how to proceed from one mission to the next.
"The platoon leaders had to figure it out on the fly," Flesch said. "They never knew the next step."
The uncertainty had the effect of heightening the Paratroopers' awareness of their surroundings, which is a crucial aspect of combat, especially in a counter-insurgency situation, said Lt. Col Christopher Laneve, the battalion commander.
"They are learning about their environment," Laneve said.
The scenario was a leap forward in complexity from more conventional live fire exercises, in which Soldiers usually arrive at a range, run through several iterations of a particular drill, and then head home.
Staff Sgt. Chris Russell, a squad leader with Company B, said the change was beneficial.
"With this field problem, there's been a lot of build-up, a lot of intelligence that's been gathered, and you have to kind of put all the pieces together," Russell said. "It gives these guys a taste of what's likely when we deploy."
Eventually, the paratroopers conducting the training gathered enough intelligence to enable them to identify the location of a high value target. Their next mission was to conduct an assault on the target's heavily fortified, guarded compound. This was the live fire.
After several run-throughs using blank ammunition, it was time to go live. The Paratroopers moved quietly through the woods, stopping just before the compound as the sounds of the pre-assault artillery barrage echoed through the trees. Then, in a flurry of shouted orders, smoke, and blazing machine gun hiccups from the support-by-fire position, they stormed the building. Breaching the gate quickly, the paratroopers kicked in the front door and cleared each room with methodical precision, eliminating any resistance with controlled pairs. In minutes, the objective was clear and the mission was complete.
According to Laneve, there is no training equal in value to a realistic live fire exercise to gauge how prepared a Soldier is for combat.
"A platoon live fire at night is the pinnacle of the training for an infantry platoon," he said.
For Russell, the squad leader, every minute he spends training for combat with his troopers is valuable, because the real thing might be right around the corner.
"Everybody's aware that we can get the call at any time, so every bit of training we do is going to make us better prepared," he said.