By Andrea Sutherland (Fort Carson)March 28, 2013
FORT CARSON, Colo. -- In the dried riverbed near Camp Red Devil, a convoy of Humvees, mine detection systems and recovery vehicles made its way into the narrow channel. Slowly and methodically, the vehicles crept forward.
"Route clearance is tedious," said Capt. Donald Schmidt, observing the convoy made up of Soldiers from 2nd Platoon, 576th Engineer Company, 4th Engineer Battalion. "You have to go slow. That's why a 20-mile mission can take 10 hours."
Schmidt, the company commander for the 576th Eng., jotted notes as his Soldiers inched by.
From March 12-17, three line platoons from the 576th Eng. completed mounted and dismounted route-clearance missions and collected intelligence as part of an evolutionary training concept dubbed "assured mobility."
Every few hundred feet, the lead vehicle -- a Husky Vehicle Mounted Mine Detection System -- paused, examining the area for possible improvised explosive devices.
After detecting an unknown ordnance, the Husky backed away as the platoon's Buffalo Mine Protected Clearance Vehicle came forward. Within the confines of the 50,000-pound vehicle, a Soldier manipulated the hydraulic "arm," interrogating the suspected explosive. Blasting air to remove excess dirt and sand, the Buffalo revealed the ordnance.
Falling back into a protected position, the Buffalo reversed as Soldiers prepared the Talon robot.
"Deploying the robot to examine the ordnance keeps a Soldier from having to do it," Schmidt said, scribbling more notes on his evaluation forms. "Whatever we can do to keep Soldiers safe, we do it."
Hundreds of feet from the ordnance, Soldiers watched and guided the robot from the safety of their vehicles. With its robotic arm and mounted camera, the Talon revealed the ordnance was just a shell, not connected to any wiring and not posing an immediate threat.
After retrieving the Talon and "calling in" a request to detonate the ordnance, the convoy moved forward.
"This (training) helps with focus and attention span because (route clearance) can be so boring," Schmidt said. "If they can do this and not get complacent, then the training is working."
In the exercise, Soldiers continued down the riverbed, eventually coming to a choke point that forced Soldiers out of their vehicles and into the more vulnerable, dismounted patrol.
"In this training, we're looking for how Soldiers find IEDs and how they take care of them," Schmidt said. "In the culminating event, they'll get hit with casualties, and we'll be looking to see how they react and recover."
Soldiers performed their missions both in vehicles and on foot, using TALON robots and hand-held mine-detection devices such as the DSP-27 Goldie, the VMR-2 Minehound and VMC-1 Gizmo.
"Their mission is route clearance, but we have a heavy focus on intelligence gathering," Schmidt said.
After every patrol, platoon leaders briefed company intelligence support teams on their mission, including where IEDs were spotted, what materials may have been used and other crucial details.
"Based on that information, the COIST analyzes and briefs the platoons for their next missions," Schmidt said. "We're preparing ourselves to be self-sustaining."
"With an internal COIST, there's a higher trust level," said 1st Sgt. Dana Tanner. "We're learning how the enemy is changing tactics and how to adapt."
Tanner and Schmidt said the goal of the training was to provide as realistic conditions as possible in preparation for the company's rotation at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La., in May and a future deployment to Afghanistan in the summer.
"We've pushed everything at them," Tanner said. "We're pushing casualty evacuations heavily -- getting them to understand the 'fatal hour' and making it so it's clockwork. We're pushing them so the recovery takes 30 minutes versus three hours."
For Tanner and Schmidt, achieving that high level of performance comes with repetition. And more repetition.
"Everyone has to know what to do," said Schmidt. "We go through heavy rehearsals before every mission. We do mission briefs 30 minutes prior to rolling out. If three of the four guys are down, that fourth guy has to know how to take charge."
To help ensure the training was as realistic as possible, the company enlisted the help from officials with the Counter-Improvised Explosive Device Integration Cell at Fort Carson who helped write and set up training lanes and educate new engineers using mine-detection devices.
"(The training is) a little more intense than an actual deployment, but that's not a bad thing," said Spc. Michael Figueroa, 3rd Platoon, 576th Eng. "Intense training leads to a smooth deployment."
1st Lt. Cody Tebbitt, platoon leader for 3rd Platoon, said despite the long hours spent on the mission, in briefs, maintaining vehicles and performing rehearsals, his Soldiers are learning valuable lessons.
"This training is helping us think and refine battle drills," he said. "The first night we were out for more than 10 hours. We're operating on two hours of sleep most days and we have done lots of planning and executing. (The realistic training) forces us to think outside the box and realize that (these scenarios) can happen."