FORT BENNING, Ga. - Mortarmen lit up the sky Wednesday around Cactus Range on Fort Benning's eastern border as they conducted a culminating live-fire event to become certified.

Manning several mortar weapons systems, the students fired 60, 81 and 120-millimeter rounds at targets several hundred yards downrange.

In a combat situation, mortars help ground troops break contact with the enemy, said senior instructor Staff Sgt. Jose Aguilar, who's deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

"It suppresses the enemy," he said. "Sixty and 81 millimeter systems are mainly used in light Infantry units, 120 is more typical in mechanized units. But now, especially in Afghanistan, guys will easily be shooting all three systems at the same time on any given day, so they need to be proficient in them all. These guys will go back to the line and most of them will be section sergeants."

The Soldiers are students with the Indirect Fire Infantryman Advanced Leader Course, a six-week course designed to prepare junior NCOs to function as mortar squad leaders, fire direction center chiefs and section sergeants. During the course, students are rated on their leadership abilities and tested on forward observer procedures, tactical employment of mortars and fire direction center procedures. The fire direction center is considered the brain of the operation and controls the synchronization of mortar fire and control, Aguilar said.

Staff Sgt. Michael Argent, of the operations section for Fort Jackson, S.C.'s U.S. Army Drill Sergeant School, said mortars "are the quickest way to get the enemies heads down."

For Argent, the class's honor graduate, the course is refresher training. Argent said since being assigned to the drill sergeant school he hasn't touched a mortar and the course helped him remember things he'd forgotten. Argent said the course is preparing him for the day he goes "back to the line."

Staff Sgt. Andrew Kushmeider, the distinguished mortarman of the class, has deployed three times with 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment. He's currently assigned to 1st Battalion (Airborne), 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment, out of Fort Polk, La., and said the course taught him a skill he didn't know.

"Using plotting boards in the fire direction center," he said. "It's an older skill, it's like doing land navigation with a map and compass instead of using GPS. I've never done it before and it's a big asset."

Kushmeider said mortars serve many capabilities downrange. In addition to being indirect fire support for Infantrymen, mortarmen can illuminate targets for forward observers to see, screen troop movement and disperse the enemy.

"There's also a mental factor. When you shoot, the enemy doesn't know where it's going to land," he said.

The course's senior instructor said he knows the feeling of being unsure where a mortar would land.

"I've been on the receiving end of mortars and when you've got mortars coming at you ... it's a crazy feeling. There's not much you can do ... you hit the ground and take cover," he said.

Aguilar said in one deployment to Afghanistan his company fired more than 12,000 mortar rounds.

"Right now in Afghanistan, mortars are one of the most essential elements hands down," he said. "In my unit, we would not send out a patrol without a 60 mm mortar. Never."