CAMP BUEHRING, KUWAIT (Aug. 19, 2012) -- Like the flag and standard bearers of old, the 4th Battalion, 118th Infantry Regiment Soldiers with the progress poles -- a piece of bright or reflective material atop a short staff -- let their fellow troops know exactly where they were during platoon live-fire exercises at the Udairi Range in late July and early August.
But progress and upholding Army training standards are just some of the things these South Carolina Army National Guard Soldiers have been doing since deploying to Kuwait in April. The live-fire exercises, which involved clearing buildings and assaulting a trench system, were both a refresher and a step forward for his troops, said Capt. Brian Pinson, commander of A Company, 4th Battalion.
"We're increasing our proficiencies and increasing our skill sets," said Pinson, who is from Greenwood, S.C. While assuming security-force and camp operations in northern Kuwait, battalion troops have kept up the pace of training with various exercises, including embassy-defense scenarios in May and other live-fire exercises.
Though they had conducted similar live-fire exercises at the National Training Center in California and Camp Shelby, Miss., prior to deploying, the Soldiers began a fresh cycle of live-fire exercises after arriving in Kuwait, with team live-fire exercises, then moving on to squad and platoon live-fire exercises.
Like the other training events, the platoon live-fire exercises tested the Soldiers' ability to shoot and maneuver as a unit, the ability of teams and squads to cover each other with fire superiority and the ability of leaders -- at all levels -- to command and control the troops, said Pinson.
"Doing live-fire exercises builds confidence," Pinson said, adding that though his troops are skilled at clearing buildings and fire and maneuver, clearing a trench system is relatively new for most of them. An assault on a trench system must be fast, violent and smooth, and the troops must "flow through there like water," he explained.
"Clearing a trench is a whole different ballgame," said 1st Lt. Robert Barnes, the 2nd platoon leader of A Company, who is from Spartanburg, S.C.
Company A troops went through the live-fire exercise, July 31. Spread out in two mutually supporting squads, the troops stepped out across the soft desert sand, and then began trotting toward the buildings they were tasked to clear.
At the building entrances the troops deftly fell into the "stack" -- the distinctive file formation used to enter and move through structures and rooms. Once inside, the troops engaged targets and cleared all the rooms and spaces. The sharp, loud sounds of the controlled shooting contrasted with the voices of the troops, who coordinated with each other in measured, even tones as they snaked through the maze-like structures.
Maintaining their momentum, the troops moved on to the trench system, which was roughly 100 yards beyond the buildings. Though not large, the system was no simple ditch either. About shoulder-deep and reinforced with sandbags, the system also had bunkers and branched from one trench into two others at a "Y" intersection.
That intersection made clearing the system a challenge, said 1st Lt. Robert Hartman III, 1st Platoon leader of Company A, who is from Columbia, S.C.
"It takes coordination between two different squads," Hartman said. "That was the most critical part, I think, in terms of safety and risk."
Progress poles are an important part of that coordination, Pinson and Hartman went on to explain. Company's A progress poles, fashioned from whip-antenna sections, were attached to individual Soldiers' equipment and extended when the assault troops breached the trench.
As the name implies, the highly-visible progress poles showed the assault element's progress and location as they cleared the trench system. Some of Company A's progress poles resembled small flags, bobbing above the trench parapet during the assault.
Using the poles as guides, Soldiers of the support element knew where to safely provide covering fire for the assault element. That includes the Soldier firing the M240B machine gun, Hartman stressed.
"That lets the 240 gunner know when to lift and shift on the breach point," Hartman said. "He's shooting ahead of them as they progress through the trench."
Pinson's explanation of the progress pole was even blunter.
"It's a control measure so you don't get shot," he said, adding that they also used other control measures like radios and smoke.
Pinson and Hartman said the exercise was successful overall, though Pinson said his troops need to refine their trench-clearing techniques. Hartman added that he's proud of how his troops performed, but stressed that all this training is perishable.
"We're basically keeping it fresh in our minds," Hartman said. "That's why it's important that we do this. Practice doesn't make permanent, but it makes prominent. But perfect practice makes perfect."
Sgt. Brian Wingard, a team leader in Company A's third platoon, led a trench-breaching team during the exercise. He was also pleased with the exercise overall.
"I was kind of impressed with the guys, and with the speed they went through it," said Wingard, of Greenville, S.C. The trench system was a challenge, he added.
A veteran of Iraq, Wingard reflected on the training and his experiences.
"Some of this is kind of redundant, for the guys who have been in combat," he said. "For others, it's new."
Practicing basic tactics like they did on the live-fire exercise is important, but those who've used those tactics in combat never forget them, Wingard said.
"In the infantry, you've either got it or you don't," he said.