Camp Bullis, Texas - Early on the morning of May 6, more than 110 elite warriors representing all 16 First Army training brigades and four of its installations converged on Camp Bullis in the Texas hill country to compete in a marksmanship contest the likes of which very few of them had ever seen.
The First Army Commander's Warrior Challenge wasn't about a quiet and controlled environment for the shooter AfA! la the Olympics; it was about combat marksmanship, and according to Maj. David Harrington, commander, Task Force- Small Arms Readiness Group (TF-SARG), First Army, that makes all the difference.
"Match shooting is usually in a fairly controlled environment," Harrington explained. "Everything is slow and methodical; the heart rate is low and slow.
In the Warrior Challenge, the Soldier is under stresses associated with combat; running, movement to contact, acquiring the target and putting a lethal shot on target - everything our Soldiers are doing right this moment in Iraq and Afghanistan is simulated during the Warrior Challenge."
The Warrior Challenge was created by Lt. Gen. Russel L. HonorAfA, commanding general, First Army, not only as a competition, but as a training tool as well.
"The Soldiers who are competing here are force multipliers," Harrington said. "We are developing that intuitive response they will take back to their brigades and installations and will teach the lessons learned here to the units deploying overseas."
Five days of grueling competition made up the Warrior Challenge. Competitors arrived May 5. Conditions were spartan at best. The Soldiers stayed in un-air-conditioned huts, ate meals in a standard mess hall, and for lunch, each team captain was given Meals-Ready-to-Eat to dole out to their team. If the MREs were forgotten, that team didn't eat.
"The Soldiers here are undergoing total weapons immersion," Harrington stated. They carry their weapon with them at all times except in the Post Exchange. The Soldiers become more accustomed to handling their rifles and they develop good safety practices they'll pass on in training."
"They are issued a standard, pre-zeroed M-16 so no one has an advantage by bringing their own match rifle. Before the competition begins, each Soldier has a chance to personally zero their weapon."
Not only was there competition using the M-16, two 9mm pistol matches were held, and the first-ever Army Foreign Weapons Competition using Romanian-made AK-47 "Kalashnikov" rifles.
"We believe the Soldier needs to be familiar with the most common weapon of our enemy as well as his own weapon," Harrington said. "The foreign weapons match actually pits the AK-47 against the M-16.
"Special Operations Command lent us the AK-47s, which were brand new and fired very well. After a familiarization on the AK-47 from 100 yards, the Soldiers had to fire the M-16 and the AK-47 at man-sized targets from 200 yards. Not only does the Soldier get to know the enemy's weapon, but he learns how much better - how much more accurate - the M-16 is to the AK-47."
"Almost without exception, a Soldier will fire a tighter shot group with the M-16 than with the AK-47," said Master Sgt. Charles Coffey, a member of the Army Marksmanship Unit based at Fort Benning, Ga. "A new AK-47 will fire a good group, but over time the rifle 'loosens up' and loses accuracy. The M-16 will fire a nice, tight group new and three years down the road."
It wasn't all running and shooting, though. Every competitor had to work in "The Pits," and according to Chief Warrant Officer 4 Bryan Wood, B Co. 6th Battalion, 52 Aviation Regiment, Fort McCoy, Wisc., that experience is as important as the competition itself.
"Working 'The Pits' is an important part of this competition," Woods explained. "When a round goes overhead, it's going so fast (approximately 2,800 feet per second) it creates a sonic boom that sounds like a firecracker exploding. After spending a few rotations a day in 'The Pits,' Soldiers can tell if a round is to their left, right or straight overhead. That's a pretty valuable skill to have when you are being shot at in battle.
"Also, if a Soldier is on patrol and hears a 'pop' from a rifle, but doesn't hear a sonic crack, he knows the fire is not close to him."
Asked if they thought the Warrior Challenge was a valuable experience, every single Soldier praised the event.
Staff Sgt. Francis Jaeger, an Observer Controller/Trainer with the 120th Infantry Brigade, First Army, who placed second in the Excellence in Competition rifle match and represented Fort Sam Houston, was impressed.
"This is a great experience. There is no comparison between regular rifle qualification on a 25-meter range and this competition." Jaeger said. "You learn to shoot with your heart rate up and with other people firing. The Small Arms Readiness Group folks were great. They taught us from scratch and talked about sight alignment, trigger control, how to adjust for wind and weather and how to put a well-aimed shot on target. I've been in the Army for 16 years and I always wanted to do something like this."
Some of the training brigade commanders and command sergeants' major attending were likewise impressed.
"Marksmanship is the most fundamental Soldier skill," said Col. Anthony Daskevich, commander, 479th Field Artillery (FA) Brigade, First Army, Fort Sill, Okla. The benefits of the Commander's Warrior Challenge cross the spectrum of Soldier skills."
Command Sergeant Major Jerry Montgomery, also of the 479th FA Brigade, First Army, concurred.
"Our trainers competing here have gained a lot of information," Montgomery said. "They are force multipliers because they will take what they learned here and train our deploying units. Plus, we get back better Soldiers."
Training Soldiers to be better Soldiers - to fight and win our nation's battles and return home safely to their families - that is the warrior spirit that permeates the tough, realistic training that is the hallmark of First Army's creed to train like you're gonna fight.