Congressional staffers 'taste' life of Soldiers

By Rob McIlvaineAugust 18, 2011

Chinook banks right
1 / 5 Show Caption + Hide Caption – (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
Gwen meets family members at Friday luncheon
2 / 5 Show Caption + Hide Caption – (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
Staffer applies field dressing
3 / 5 Show Caption + Hide Caption – (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
Staffer talks with Afghan role player
4 / 5 Show Caption + Hide Caption – (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
Monica carries wounded
5 / 5 Show Caption + Hide Caption – (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT POLK, La. (Army News Service, Aug. 15, 2011) -- Thirty-five Senate and House staffers last week experienced the training Soldiers receive at Fort Polk's Joint Readiness Training Center.

For the third year, the secretary of the Army invited congressional staffers to observe how the Army prepares brigade combat teams for deployment to Afghanistan. This year, the staffers not only got a taste of what Soldiers experience, they were active participants in the tactical pre-deployment training of the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division from Fort Richardson, Alaska.

While the mantra of "hydrate, hydrate, hydrate" justifiably filled the air from sunup to sundown, the Congressional staffers lived, breathed, ate -- in short, integrated with Soldiers. They also interacted with Afghan and civilian role players for three days, beginning Aug. 10.


"The Staff Delegation JRTC Army Day is really about fostering relationships with members of the House and Senate and to let them know that the Army Congressional Liaison Office is here to work closely with them," said Maj. Ed Kennedy of the Army House Liaison Office.

Kennedy said this is a smart Army with dedicated Soldiers who are preparing for cultural differences by understanding how to relate with Afghans.

"We want to give the staffers, who will report back to their senator or congressman, a better understanding of the training and challenges Soldiers face, as well as the quality of life they and their families experience on and off post," Kennedy said.

By building these relationships, he said, the staffers on the House and the Senate side get to know who they can turn to when questions about the Army arise.


The JRTC is focused on improving unit readiness by providing highly realistic, stressful, joint and combined arms training across the full spectrum of conflict.

It's one of the Army's three Combat Training Centers resourced to train infantry brigade combat teams and their subordinate elements in the Joint Contemporary Operational Environment. The other two being the Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Germany, and the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif.


From the moment the staffers departed the plane at Alexandria Air Force Base in Louisiana, their mission began with a Black Hawk or Chinook helicopter ride to the base, a briefing and then on to their training with demonstrations presented by senior leaders of the 162nd Infantry Brigade.

Some came to learn specific things for their boss, others came to get an understanding so they can relate to the issues when they're introduced in their office.

"I want to see how the training will prepare Soldiers for Afghanistan, how cultural values are taught, and how conflicts arise from lack of this knowledge," said Ryan Vaart who works for Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine as a legislative assistant on veteran affairs and military issues.

Adam Wood was sent by Congresswoman Renee Ellmers of North Carolina who currently serves on the House Committees on Agriculture, Foreign Affairs and Small Business.

"I want to get a better understanding of how the training of Soldiers and how the money is being spent," said Wood, adding that Fort Bragg is part of Ellmers' district.

Gwen Signa came to "Army Days" at Fort Polk with considerable experience, first working for a congressman on defense work issues from 1966 through 1985. Since 2007, she's worked on DoD, military, and veteran outreach issues for Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia.

"My main objective on this trip is to look at the training of troops and to talk with family members," said Signa, a former military brat, who heads Webb's northern Virginia office.


From the moment the chopper touched down, the training was served Tapas style -- small tastes of the complete courses the Soldiers endure.

First, the staffers headed out to the Reconfigurable Vehicle Tactical Trainer and entered the Overwatch Center/After Action Review, or AAR, theater for training about the Humvee simulator. The theater is where trainers monitor the route taken, interactions of Soldiers and movement of the vehicle, including radio communications for later review.

Following this, they got into the vehicle in the next room, manned the .50-caliber machine gun, while a couple of others grabbed M-4 infantry assault weapon, and one drove.

As the video began, the driver pressed on the accelerator and steered up and down a dirt road while trainers pointed out the enemy.

"After the simulation over actual Afghan terrain, the Soldiers come in here for their AAR, where we sit the team down and go over what they could have done or should have done," said Brig. Gen. Clarence K.K. Chinn, commanding general of JRTC and Fort Polk.

He said this virtual training is all about mental visualization, so when it actually happens the Soldiers will react, instinctively.

Col. Matthew McKenna, 162nd Infantry Brigade commander, added that, "They do this virtual alive strategy for a day, so if something goes wrong they're not going to get hurt and can correct their mistakes," adding that the real purpose is to teach crew coordination so they learn how to work together before getting in a real vehicle and doing it live.

All combat advisors in Iraq and Afghanistan come to JRTC to get trained, Chinn said.

"This is why the funding and the financing and everything we do here, why this equipment and technology is important and has changed lives, and that's why we have the greatest Army in the world… we've got great leaders and great Soldiers, but we've got great equipment that allows us to replicate what's going to happen. We can't allow mistakes or folks doing things for the first time," Chinn said.

The simulator can be changed from an Afghanistan scenario to an Iraqi one.

"We can make it more difficult, based on their experience level and their skill level. Or we can make it easier so we can get them the fundamentals," McKenna added.

Tom Stewart, military legislative assistant for Congressman Leonard Boswell of Iowa, said the experience so far was a "wonderful learning opportunity."

"This will help me relate to the Soldier's experience and represent the people of the 3rd Congressional District," Stewart said, adding that the Iowa Army National Guard's Camp Dodge is in his district.

"There's a lot of Iowa National Guardsmen in Afghanistan right now," he said, "and Medal of Honor recipient Sal Giunta lives not far from my hometown."

Kris Denzel, military liaison assistant to Congressman Robert Dold who represents the 10th District of Illinois, said simply, "This is a unique opportunity," adding that Great Lakes Navy Base is situated in the congressman's district.


After getting a chance to drive a real mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle, or MRAP, over a mile-long course, the staffers immediately went to learn the basics of being a first responder or combat lifesaver.

Staff Sgt. Aaron Milton gave a lesson on how to apply a combat action tourniquet and field dressing on Mike the mannequin -- a moaning, coughing, bleeding and heart-beating replica of a man.

"Stopping the bleeding," said Milton, "is the first step on what we need to do on a battlefield to prevent our Soldiers from bleeding to death, which is the number-one cause of preventable death on the battlefield," he said.

After the short lesson, the staffers were suddenly thrust into a darkened room as part of a team that is busting up an arms deal. The first couple of people (mannequins) got hit and the team had to render aid surrounded by fire and smoke.

The mannequins are connected to computers, and depending on the level of care, can accept morphine and saline solution and have their vital signs monitored. The computers record everything so the instructors know if the medics are performing the tasks correctly.

"Our medical folks say it's some of the best training that they get here at Fort Polk because it's medical specific and it also pushes them," said Capt. Robert McKibben, a trainer who was part of the original group that came through about two years ago.

"We're in here with the combat sounds and it's louder with the medics coming through and we darken the lights even more, and we put additional stressors on them because of what we expect them to know and be able to execute. But they love the training. One of the things they continually ask for in the critiques is more of it," he said.

Besides the combat lifesavers/first responders -- as well as the medics, they also train doctors and nurses over the course of three intense days.

"I had the blood turned off on Mike the mannequin," Milton said. "But when our students go through, there's blood everywhere. When you touch Mike's clothes they'll be wet so you find the bleeding. When the students come out, they're hands are red for a couple of days, but we were told we had to play nice with you guys," he said to laughs from the staffers.

"We're not teaching them like they're coming off the block. They come here to get the skills they already have, refreshed, and to also learn some of the new equipment we might have. For us, it's important to take care of the people who take care of this country," Milton said.


Presented by McKenna, the brief covered the multi-purposes of Fort Polk.

First and foremost, he said, he wanted everyone to remember the 162nd trains combat advisors going to Iraq and Afghanistan.

"I'm going to talk to you about three things: our resident training that we do here at Fort Polk, our mobile training where we go out to different brigades across the United States and train them, and our new mission which is going to be expanding our role to the other geographic combatant commands," he said.

Fort Polk, he said, is currently focused on Central Command, or CENTCOM, and Iraq and Afghanistan but over the course of this year and next year, will be going to Africa Command, or AFRICOM, European Command, or EUCOM, Pacific Command, or PACOM, and Southern Command, or SOUTHCOM.

"Our First Battalion, over the next year, will continue to be aligned with CENTCOM. Our Second Battalion will be aligned with SOUTHCOM and NORTHCOM, our Third Battalion will be with PACOM, Fourth Battalion with AFRICOM, and our Fifth Battalion will be with EUCOM," McKenna said.

Fort Polk's joint operation, which trains personnel from other services, currently has 23 classes scheduled this year, with about 1,200 personnel being trained annually.

"One of the things we try to do here, is to train culture and language. Those are really the core skills when it comes to combat advisors, but at the same time we also have to teach combat skills, and you experienced some of that today. We train our guys how to drive MRAPs and medical skills. But the key thing is, out of the 157 tasks we have to train, we try to keep a balance between culture and language, and combat skills," he said.

The model used for the advisors coming in, he said, is a 10-week course where they get language and culture training for a couple of weeks. This is followed by combat lifesaver, drivers training, weapons training, urban ops, and mounted combat patrol.

"More than 50 percent of our Soldiers get trained right here before they go into theater. Our mission is clear. We are a center of excellence for combat training, from squad to brigade, and we make the battlefield come to life," Chinn said.

He added that Fort Polk is the largest economic generator in Louisiana by contributing $1.6 billion.


Reveille sounded at 6 a.m. as the staffers waited outside the dining facility for the door to open. A few had already completed a short run with a stop by the gym, most of the others, though, only had eggs and sausage on their mind.

But after a short ride, the staffers were once again immersed in first aid training, including how to lift a litter and carry wounded, before moving into a large village where a bomb went off and the street was strewn with bodies -- some mannequins and some played by local citizens portraying Afghans.

The "A" Team, led by Mark Herbert, regional manager of Sen. Mary Landrieu's Lake Charles, La. office, quickly got to work locating the wounded and providing aid with tourniquets and field dressings.

Litter after litter were carried in to the combat aid station and left the team members exhausted. The incoming rounds and shouts of the villagers added to the confusion, but they took care of everyone.

Monica Davis, financial management analyst with the Congressional Budget Liaison, said she thought it would be a little unbelievable but found she quickly was immersed in the task of helping the wounded.


Following a short class on how to load the M-4, the staffers were given a "room" marked by fence posts and rails so the trainers could watch every move in the process.

Four-man teams were shown how to move as one before entering and then quickly moving, alternately left and right, to clear the room of enemy positions.

Then they moved upstairs to clear a second-floor room. One member swept the door for possible explosives and then kicked it open while the other three quickly moved in, followed by the fourth. After just one shot, each called out their position and yelled "clear."

Next, they learned how to move in formation to overtake the enemy hiding behind trees and bushes. Using blanks, each member, as needed, raised their rifle, thumbed their safety off and fired a round, hopefully hitting the enemy in this high-tech laser war.


Consisting of four scenarios, staffers accompanied the Alaska Brigade Combat Team, or BCT, Soldiers down the street to the home of a man who said American Soldiers killed his son by hitting him with an Army vehicle, an owner of an open-air store who said his vehicle was stolen and complained of illegal drug and weapon trafficking, a restaurateur who reported he had seen a suspicious character with a large black box lurking around, and finally a malik -- or tribal leader among the Pashtuns -- whose town's textile mill had been destroyed and had been left with no way of making money, no water, and a destroyed economy.

JRTC scenarios allow complete integration of other military services as well as host-nation and civilian role players. Each exercise replicates many of the unique situations and challenges a unit may face.

Observer/Controllers, who help make the training effective, observe unit performance, control engagements and operations, teach doctrine, coach to improve unit performance, monitor safety and conduct professional after-action reports.

With native Afghan interpreters, both Soldiers and staffers tried their hand at conversing and learning as much as possible, while not seeming to be a threat but a friend there to help.

After each scenario, the AAR allowed the interpreter and observer/controller, or OC, to advise how to react and respond.

"You guys didn't greet the elders in the room. They could be power brokers. And buy something at the store. Also, don't come in with your finger on the trigger. Relax," said Solomon Fetrat, one of the interpreters.

He suggested the Soldiers learn more about Pashtan Wahli -- making the guest feel comfortable by offering hospitality, sanctuary.

"Read the Old Testament and Aesop's Fables. Use analogy to get your point across and show concern for their livelihood. And watch 'The Beast,' a 1988 Columbia Pictures film directed by Kevin Reynolds, about a Soviet tank lost during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan," said Fetrat.


After the staffers had breakfast with Purple Heart recipients at Bayne Jones Army Community Hospital, they learned about MWDs, or military working dogs, many of whom have served five and six tours in Iraq.

Next, the Installation Strategic Sustainability Plan and Net Zero Waste at Fort Polk were outlined; barracks living, both the older buildings and their restoration and the newest one-bedroom apartments with refrigerator, stove and microwave, was shown by former Fort Polk Garrison Command Sgt. Maj. Ricky Jones who is now barracks coordinator for the Department of Public Works; and new housing for young families were toured, as well as the social center with pool, gym, TV room and game room.

Lunch with family members, many of whom work with the Family Readiness Groups, capped off the relaxing day.

"We brought the congressional staffers here to show them the Army's premier training center and the investment put into all of the training. This is a good news story that doesn't get told," said Col. Al Shoffner, Army House Liaison.

Jeff Goldberg, who works for Senate Sergeant At Arms Terrance W. Gainer, said, "This was a great opportunity to see servicemembers in the real Army."