By Spc. Kathryn Summerhill, U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command (Airborne)September 19, 2011
FORT BRAGG, N.C., Sept. 19, 2011 -- Filling the midnight sky, 2,500 paratroopers floated across the full moon over Sicily Drop Zone on Fort Bragg, N.C.
Paratroopers of the 450th Civil Affairs Battalion based in Riverdale, Md., along with the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, out of Fort Bragg, participated in a Joint Operational Access Exercise Sept. 11-12. The JOAX brought together civil affairs and infantry Soldiers in a combined effort to complete a night airborne operation with follow-on missions, which replicate real world scenarios.
The operation gave the paratroopers the opportunity to practice exiting an aircraft at night in full combat gear, meeting at a predetermined rally point once on-ground, and then organizing a low-visibility, dismounted movement onto an objective to seize a high-value individual, followed by a key leader engagement.
The civil affairs team consisted of four Army Reserve civil affairs specialists, whose mission was to support the JOAX as advisors to 3rd BCT while they conducted the key leader engagement.
Exercises like these, while complicated to plan and execute, are integral to preparing different military elements for deployed situations, explained Capt. Peter C. Bakke, an information operations officer with 3rd BCT, 82nd Abn. Div.
"It is important because we work together on the battlefield," Bakke said. "If we build good working relationships by planning and training together, it will be mutually beneficial."
Even though the 450th Soldiers are members of the Army Reserve, and the 82nd Soldiers are active duty, which typically creates a dividing line between troops, the two groups teamed up to complete the mission of the night. The ability to team up with the 82nd and perform at their level was a goal for Maj. David Spess.
"You want whoever you're going to support to just absolutely not be able to tell the difference between you and organic troops other than you have specialized skills that you bring to the table," explained Spess.
To ensure this is the case downrange, Spess worked with USACAPOC(A) and the 82nd to get his Soldiers involved in the JOAX. Spess considers this training to be critical to preparing civil affairs Soldiers, especially younger Soldiers with little experience, for future deployments, as it is done at a level a battalion just cannot match on their own.
"We can do KLE's [key leader engagements] by ourselves," Spess said. "What we can't replicate at the battalion level is a 155 millimeter Howitzer going off. What we can't replicate at battalion level is 14 aircraft and hundreds of paratroopers in the air. We can't replicate just the complexity of moving an entire brigade of paratroopers onto the battlefield."
For the younger soldiers of the 450th who participated in the JOAX, the message of the importance of this exercise was not lost.
"I feel like I am very privileged to be here because I got to learn a lot," said Spc. Adrian Smith, a civil affairs specialist with the 450th CA BN. "I was able to see a lot of stuff that E-4s and below in my unit haven't seen or encountered yet, so I'll be able to take what I've learned here and show them so we can become better as a battalion."
Smith also noted that he appreciated the training with 3rd BCT because it allowed for a margin of error in operations that must be eliminated prior to deploying
"When we go overseas, it's not just going to be a CAT (civil affairs team) by themselves. We're going to be working with combined teams," Smith said. "It's better to get acclimated to working with them now, at home safe, and we can make mistakes, and learn from them, as opposed to going overseas and not having any idea what to do, making mistakes and it costing you over there."
While the training was challenging and offered a rare training opportunity to both the 3rd BCT Soldiers and the 450th Soldiers, it also gave one Soldier bragging rights.
"Out in the field, it's midnight, I'm doing stuff," said Smith. "I might have missed the first football game of the season, but it's a lot cooler than what most of my friends can say they were doing. I jumped out of a plane with the 82nd and ran around with night vision goggles on."
This was the first JOAX USACAPOC(A) assets participated in recently, but hopefully it will not be the last. The 450th was the first to get this opportunity because historically they are the wartrace unit to the 82nd Abn. Div., for civil affairs mission support, according to Capt. Matt Brown, the air operations officer with USACAPOC(A). By seeing the success in this exercise, Brown already has future training plans.
"We intend to expand and work further with BCTs for not only civil affairs missions, but psychological operations missions as well," explained Brown.
After getting this chance, Smith agrees that continuous future training, similar to this, is important for himself and his future Soldiers.
"It makes me want to remember that when I get to a senior level to extend this kind of opportunity to young Soldiers, not just hog it for myself," Smith said. "If they get a chance to go out and learn as much as they can with these exercises and training, and they'll be in my shoes one day, we can keep the trend going as time goes on, so as the Army goes on, we stay one of the best."