By Chuck Cannon, Fort Polk Guardian staff writerAugust 22, 2011
FORT POLK, La. " "It's a crappy situation, but that's how we operate."
Staff Sgt. Jason Wells, Joint Readiness Training Center Operations Group, used those words to explain some of the unorthodox procedures used by Soldiers during foot patrols in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Wells was speaking to Congressional staff members during their annual visit to JRTC and Fort Polk Aug. 10-12. The aides were invited to JRTC to catch a glimpse of the training Soldiers go through before their deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan. During the three-day trip, staff members were treated to demonstrations by the 162nd Infantry Brigade, an attack on a convoy, operations in an Afghani village, first aid training, a military working dog demonstration, tours of both old and new barracks and housing.
Day one found the Congressional aides observing demonstrations by the 162nd Infantry Brigade. The 162nd Inf Bde conducts combat advisor training for foreign area advisor teams headed to Afghanistan and Iraq. During the visit, staffers were led through three stations that included hands-on opportunities. One station offered a glimpse at the Army's mine resistant ambush protected vehicles, while another allowed the visitors a chance to see what it is like to drive a High Mobility Multipurpose Military Vehicle (HMMMV) by using a Reconfigurable Vehicle Tactical Trainer, a simulator that gives users the feel and sensation of actually operating a military vehicle.
The next day, staffers headed out to the "box" " Fort Polk's training area that includes Afghani and Iraqi "villages," complete with foreign national and local role players " to see how units preparing to deploy to either Iraq or Afghanistan train to face unique situations.
The first "mission" had the 30-plus staffers accompanying members of the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, Fort Wainwright, Alaska, to see how Soldiers interact with the local population to resolve issues that come up on a daily basis. Some staff members were afforded the opportunity to partake in negotiations with villagers. Scenarios included a friendly exchange where information was traded with little fanfare, and a not-so-friendly exchange, which ended with members of the local population raising their voices in anger and the negotiation team " including staffers " shaking their heads and wondering if they were about to be attacked.
Next up for the group was a chance to be role players. The aides dressed in Afghani attire and joined a boisterous crowd as a suicide bomber detonated herself next to a convoy's lead vehicle.
With victims sporting "wounds," moulage arms and legs lying in the roadway, and explosions blowing up vehicles in the town, the staffers were given a first-hand look at what situations Soldiers face in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Andrew Reuther, a member of Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise's staff, said the experience was beneficial for workers who spend most of their time in an office.
"It's great for us to see the importance of Fort Polk and the Joint Readiness Training Center, and how they prepare Soldiers to go to Iraq and Afghanistan," Reuther said. "I'm excited to experience some of the training aspects Soldiers go through before they deploy. I think any staffer who handles defense issues for their member should go through this."
Following the suicide bomber scenario, the visitors were treated to a sack lunch in the field, then divided into squads for their next missions: Responding to an attempted ambush and clearing a building.
For the ambush, the squad moved down a dusty dirt road and was attacked by enemy forces in the wood line. Squad members responded by taking cover, then taking the fight to the enemy. The aides moved through the woods using trees as cover to corner the enemy. Once the enemy was neutralized, the squad moved on to a two-story building in an Afghan village and cleared the structure of enemy combatants.
Rebecca Hobbs, a member of Kentucky Rep. Geoff Davis' staff, said the visit helped her understand her boss better.
"Congressman Davis is an Army veteran and former Ranger," she said. "I need to see from his point of view what it means to be a Soldier."
After all squads completed their missions, the crew was taken by bus to another Afghan village where they were given a first aid class. After the class, the staffers faced a scenario that included a bomb detonating in the village, multiple casualties, and incoming mortar rounds as the visitors attempted to evacuate the wounded. Among the wounded were role players missing limbs with moulage injuries that included burns and exposed intestines. The visitors performed first aid, then moved the wounded via litters to a secure area. During the movement, incoming mortar rounds forced the rescuers to drop to the ground and shield the victims from further injury.
Hobbs said the exercise was an "eye-opening" experience and gave her a better understanding of what Soldiers faced during a deployment to Afghanistan or Iraq. She added that the information gleaned from the trip would help when she assists Families of Wounded Warriors.
"I work with Families of fallen Soldiers from our district," she said. "I also deal a lot with the Pentagon. This trip has been insightful; I had no idea of the inner workings of a military base."
Hobbs' boss, Davis, was a West Point classmate of Brig. Gen. Clarence K.K. Chinn, commander, JRTC and Fort Polk. Chinn spent the day visiting with staffers as they went through the paces of a Soldier training for deployment.
"It's important to have transparency in what we do and to allow these staffers to understand how the Army trains and how we prepare Soldiers for combat," Chinn said. "All of our resources come from Congress, so it is imperative that they better understand what we do and what it takes to accomplish our mission."
During the last day of the visit, staffers observed a military working dog demonstration and got a look at how Soldiers and Family members live in garrison.
The staffers were impressed with the tenacity of the Fort Polk's military police working dogs. During a "biting" demonstration, the crowd broke out in laughter when one dog seemed reluctant to release his "suspect." Demonstrations were also given in bomb and drug detection.
Before heading to their respective homes, the aids took a tour of Fort Polk's barracks and housing. They saw both old and new barracks, a model home and a neighborhood center.
Col. Wilson Schoffner, chief, Office of the Chief Legislative Liaison " House Liaison Division, accompanied the staffers from their offices in Washington.
"What we want to achieve is to teach the staffers about the Army, how Soldiers are trained and what they are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan," Schoffner said. "At the same time, they can also see how we teach counter-insurgency. We want them to gain an appreciation of what our Soldiers go through."
That respect was not lost on Michael Walker, a member of Louisiana Rep. Rodney Alexander's staff.
"This has been great," Walker said. "Washington is so far removed from Fort Polk that we often don't realize what's going on. A lot of us have never been in the military and don't understand what a Soldier goes through on a day-to-day basis. It's very important that people in the position to make decisions regarding the military understand what we're sending money for and need to support."