Tag Archives: Fort Hood

NCOs lead the charge with Gray Eagle UAVs

By MEGHAN PORTILLO
NCO Journal

An NCO’s mind fills with doubt and apprehension as he leads his Soldiers toward an area where they have been ambushed in the past. But now, instead of waiting for a report from a scout or a pilot flying ahead, he can talk directly to the NCO operating an MQ-1C Gray Eagle unmanned aerial vehicle and access the drone’s feed on a laptop to see what awaits his unit up the road and around the corner.

Staff Sgt. Mark Mushen works as the payload operator during the flight of a Gray Eagle unmanned aerial vehicle, monitoring all of the drone’s cameras and sensors from within a ground control station. (Photo by Meghan Portillo/NCO Journal)
Staff Sgt. Mark Mushen works as the payload operator during the flight of a Gray Eagle unmanned aerial vehicle, monitoring all of the drone’s cameras and sensors from within a ground control station. (Photo by Meghan Portillo/NCO Journal)

“You can hear the relief in peoples’ voices when you talk to them on the radio,” said Staff Sgt. Mark Mushen, a 15W unmanned aerial vehicle operator in E Company, 1st Attack Reconnaissance Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment, 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood, Texas. “They feel more prepared for their mission because we are looking over them. I know those leaders are worried about their Soldiers, and it makes me feel good to be able to say ‘I got you. You are going to be OK, and your Soldiers are going to be OK because I’m watching over you. I’m watching ahead of you. I’m watching behind you. I’m watching your right and your left. I got your back.’”

Sgt. Will Scott (top) and other unmanned aircraft systems repairers perform a preflight weight and balance check on a Gray Eagle UAV.  (Photo by Meghan Portillo/NCO Journal)
Sgt. Will Scott (top) and other unmanned aircraft systems repairers perform a preflight weight and balance check on a Gray Eagle UAV. (Photo by Meghan Portillo/NCO Journal)

Mushen has seen a lot of firsts when it comes to Gray Eagle UAVs, which are both maintained and operated by enlisted personnel. He was a graduate of the first Gray Eagle certification course at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, and was sent to the Army’s first Gray Eagle unit at Fort Hood, the first unit to deploy with the new UAVs.

He has seen from the start how important NCOs are to the UAV program, and said teaching junior Soldiers to work with such valuable and high-tech equipment comes with its own set of rewards and challenges.

“Junior enlisted often work on aircraft, but it is uncommon for junior enlisted to be involved in the operation of aircraft like they are here. So as NCOs, we have to focus on keeping our Soldiers trained on flying this system as well as on other Army doctrine to make sure they master the basic soldiering skills,” Mushen said. “There is so much going on. As an operator, you’ve got to teach them how things on the ground are working, how convoys are going to move. You’ve got to teach them how to communicate properly on the radios. The main mission of an NCO is to train Soldiers, and we are training Soldiers constantly.”

Utilizing enlisted Soldiers to operate and maintain the Gray Eagles is saving the Army a lot of money, Mushen said, and the NCOs training them are leading the Army into a new era.

“Imagine the whole Army is a boat, all heading in the same direction. I feel like I’m on the front of the boat, among the first to see new territory,” Mushen said. “It’s good to be part of something so new and technologically advanced. I feel like I am ahead of the game.”

Maintenance and repair

Sgt. Joseph Crouch, an unmanned aircraft systems repairer, performs preflight operational checks on a Gray Eagle UAV’s landing gear. (Photo by Meghan Portillo/NCO Journal)
Sgt. Joseph Crouch, an unmanned aircraft systems repairer, performs preflight operational checks on a Gray Eagle UAV’s landing gear. (Photo by Meghan Portillo/NCO Journal)

The Gray Eagles are used for reconnaissance as well as attack missions. The UAVs are equipped to carry up to four Hellfire missiles, and the drone’s lightweight composite body, small diesel engine and 56-foot wingspan allow it to stay up for approximately 16 hours, depending on the weight of its load.

“These are worth between $15 million and $18 million, and the payload itself – the camera on the front with all of the laser designators – is worth $8 million to $10 million,” Mushen said. “There is so much under that hood. You would be bedazzled at all of the computers and antennae in there.”

NCOs and junior enlisted connect a portable maintenance aid, or PMA, to the Gray Eagle UAVs to monitor preflight operational checks. (Photo by Meghan Portillo/NCO Journal)
NCOs and junior enlisted connect a portable maintenance aid, or PMA, to the Gray Eagle UAVs to monitor preflight operational checks. (Photo by Meghan Portillo/NCO Journal)

Sgt. Juan Trinidad, a 15E unmanned aircraft systems repairer, also in E Company, said the Gray Eagle is much more complex than the better-known R-Q7 Shadow UAV, and NCOs have their hands full teaching Soldiers to maintain the system.

Before a flight, maintainers charge batteries, check tires and fuel levels, run tests to ensure the landing gear is functioning properly and weigh and balance the aircraft. During a flight, they may need to fix a UAV’s link with the ground control station. Should the link be lost, the UAV is programmed to loiter in a safe space until it is fixed. It will default to a certain speed and altitude, then fly along predetermined points until the link is re-established.

“Our NCOs are good at their jobs, and we are responsible for training and supervising the junior enlisted who also work on the UAVs,” Trinidad said. “We always have an experienced guy working with a new guy. You let them do as much as they can so they can learn, and we have multiple checks to make sure nothing falls through the cracks.”

Spc. Michael Chartrand, a 15E unmanned aircraft systems repairer, performs a weight and balance check on a Gray Eagle unmanned aerial vehicle to get the drone ready to fly. (Photo by Meghan Portillo/NCO Journal)
Spc. Michael Chartrand, a 15E unmanned aircraft systems repairer, performs a weight and balance check on a Gray Eagle unmanned aerial vehicle to get the drone ready to fly. (Photo by Meghan Portillo/NCO Journal)

Trinidad said his company is always flying and training. Weather permitting, the unit has Gray Eagles in the air every day. Lasers are used in the place of Hellfires, but everything else is done just as it would be during a deployment. Once the company is ready to move one of the unit’s other Gray Eagles, the maintainers break it down and pack it into a “coffin” for shipment, then rebuild it on location.

“I love what I do. I like the mechanics of it,” Trinidad said. “I take pride in learning my job, because as an NCO, you have to be an expert in what you do. It’s how you lead. It’s how you train your Soldiers and prep them for deployment. Here, there is no room for error.”

Flying the Gray Eagle

UAV operators follow almost all of the same guidelines as pilots, and even wear aircrew wings on their uniforms, but their daily work has a much different view. The ground control station is a small brown box filled with buttons, dials and screens, big enough to fit only three people. The payload – or camera – operator sits on the left, and the aircraft operator sits on the right, with barely enough room for an instructor to stand behind them.

Gray Eagle UAVs are operated from within a ground control station. Spc. Zachary Zimmerman, left, works as the aircraft operator, while Staff Sgt. Mark Mushen controls the cameras and sensors as the payload operator. (Photo by Meghan Portillo/NCO Journal)
Gray Eagle UAVs are operated from within a ground control station. Spc. Zachary Zimmerman, left, works as the aircraft operator, while Staff Sgt. Mark Mushen controls the cameras and sensors as the payload operator. (Photo by Meghan Portillo/NCO Journal)

The aircraft operator controls the autopilot, specifying the altitude, speed, location and pattern in which the drone will fly, while the payload operator monitors the cameras and the UAV’s sensors. The mission coordinator, also a UAV operator, works in the main tent or building, checking the weather and gathering other pertinent information. The operators may not turn a joystick or feel the wind as the aircraft turns, Mushen said, but in many ways, these differences are advantages.

“Apache pilots are focused on so many different things at once,” he said. “I think we are more available to react to the situation at hand. It’s not as much of a sensory overload as it can be for an Apache pilot, and we are still right there listening to the people on the ground, hearing what is going on.”

Plus, AH-64 Apaches are loud.

Gray Eagle UAVs are operated from within a ground control station. The small room has space enough for only three people. The payload operator sits on the left and the aircraft operator sits on the right, with barely enough room for an instructor to stand behind them. (Photo by Meghan Portillo/NCO Journal)
Gray Eagle UAVs are operated from within a ground control station. The small room has space enough for only three people. The payload operator sits on the left and the aircraft operator sits on the right, with barely enough room for an instructor to stand behind them. (Photo by Meghan Portillo/NCO Journal)

“We will be anywhere from 10 thousand to 25 thousand feet, and they won’t hear us. They won’t know the Gray Eagle is there,” Mushen said. “The only way you would be able to see us is if you are looking at exactly the right spot in the sky. Then you might barely see us, but only in perfect conditions. If we need to engage a target, they don’t see us coming. They don’t know how long we have been there or how long we can stay there, which is a long time.”

The Gray Eagle’s capabilities give a unit the upper hand, Mushen said. Operators are able to cut out any middle men and speak directly with the Soldiers they see on their screen. They can tell them what is happening right then and there, and even show them what the Gray Eagle sees with the help of the one system remote video terminal, or OSRVT.

The OSRVT allows an individual, usually a team or convoy leader, to view a Gray Eagle’s camera feed on a special laptop. Or, on missions when Gray Eagles and new models of the Apache are flying together, the OSRVT enables an Apache pilot to take control of the UAV camera. Pilots work closely with the operators in the ground control station so that they don’t waste time and fuel trying to acquire a target, and don’t put themselves in danger while doing so.

Lines from the ground control station can also be connected to a hub granting access to anyone with the credentials to log in. Special software picks up feeds not only from Gray Eagles, but also from UAVs flown by other branches of the military. Any commander wanting to monitor a particular mission, for example, can just click on a screen and view any feed in real time. Often on a deployment, Mushen said, there are so many UAVs in the air that you can see the entire battle space at any given time.

“While we are overseas, there are really no breaks,” he said. “If an aircraft is in working order and we are able to put it in the air, it is always in the air, because we’re a hot commodity. Everybody wants to have a UAV, and then when you tell them it can be up for hours, not be seen and also be armed and provide over-watch to any sort of unit, then we are like candy. Everybody wants us.”

An expanding field

Both Trinidad and Mushen jumped at the chance to train on the Gray Eagle UAV.

“When I talked to the recruiter, he told me this is something new,” Trinidad said. “I started on Shadow, but then I heard about the Gray Eagle. When I had the chance to go back to Fort Huachuca for that certification, I definitely didn’t hesitate.”

Though most operators and maintainers working with the Gray Eagles have previous experience with other UAVs, Mushen said the Army is looking to re-class more NCOs from other fields.

“What we need are NCOs who have experience in combat arms,” Mushen said. “If we can get NCOs in here with prior experience in those areas, it makes us even more useful to the units on the ground. We had a class last week on infantry movements, but if we have NCOs who can teach from experience and give us more than what is in the manual, then we can look at units on the ground and better anticipate their needs because we have had that cross-training from someone who has really been there.”

For those who are worried about their jobs being phased out, are unsure about what they will be able to do when they leave the Army, or just want to learn something new, this is a great option, Mushen said. Experience with UAVs qualifies NCOs for myriad jobs in the civilian market. The Army hires contractors to help train Soldiers to fly UAVs and to test new systems. Civilian companies that build the Gray Eagles, including General Atomics, Mercedes, Raytheon, AAI Corporation and L-3 Communications, also hire operators and maintainers. Jobs can even be found with the Forest Service, law enforcement, border patrol and cell-phone companies, all of which employ UAVs.

“For NCOs, this is a rapidly growing field,” Mushen said. “It’s not one of those fields you have to wonder, ‘Is there room? Can I squeeze in there?’ It’s an easy field to cross into because it’s growing faster than the Army can send us people. So I really encourage NCOs to come over to UAV and get into an exciting field that will set them up for success.”

The MQ-1C Gray Eagle is the Army’s largest unmanned aircraft system. (U.S. Army photo)
The MQ-1C Gray Eagle is the Army’s largest unmanned aircraft system. (U.S. Army photo)

Success with writing software is only latest example of innovation at Fort Hood NCOA

Command Sgt. Maj. Joseph McFarlane, the III Corps NCO Academy commandant, and Sgt. 1st Class Amber DeArmond, a senior group leader at the academy. (Photo by Clifford Kyle Jones / NCO Journal)

By CLIFFORD KYLE JONES
NCO Journal

The III Corps NCO Academy at Fort Hood was selected to pilot the Criterion writing assessment program last year, but that is just one of the ways the academy has adjusted its curriculum to better serve its junior NCOs.

Fort Hood’s NCO Academy is housed in the same complex as the post’s education center, so for years the commandant and deputy commandant have used the center’s counselors and other resources to encourage Soldiers to pursue an education and even to retake the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery to boost the general technical, or GT, portion of the ASVAB.

“You have to try to bring all those resources together, to where the students have every opportunity to use it,” said Sgt. Maj. Salvador Montez Jr., the NCOA’s deputy commandant. “If you can have an NCOA close to that post’s education center, that’s money. And we’re right next door. Even those test administrators come over here and give us tests during our training. It’s not part of our curriculum, but we’re trying to raise GT scores on these Soldiers, too, because that’s what’s required for them to be drill sergeants, recruiters, etc. You need a certain GT score.”

Command Sgt. Maj. Joseph McFarlane, the NCOA’s commandant, said incorporating a GT Predictor exam into the Basic Leader Course has led to an increased ASVAB score for 7 to 10 percent of BLC graduates.

“That’s one more drill sergeant, one more Ranger instructor, one more master gunner — the higher technical positions” that require higher GT scores, McFarlane said.

And although McFarlane says 7 to 10 percent may not sound like much, the Fort Hood NCOA has 220 to 300 students in each BLC and is conducting the 22-day courses almost back to back throughout the year. That percentage translates to improved scores for hundreds of Soldiers each year.

“I think that was the first reason we got tagged with [the Criterion pilot] last year — because we already had the GT Predictor incorporated into BLC here,” Montez said.

The GT Predictor program demonstrates the NCO Academy cadre’s commitment to success.

“I’ve surrendered a lot of my commandant’s time to the other things that are beneficial, just to help the students out, as well as to try to make the curriculum better without changing the curriculum,” McFarlane said of the 15 hours of BLC instruction that falls under his discretion as commandant. “I sacrifice my commandant’s time for something else that’s within the guidelines.”

Montez says the NCOA’s success is directly attributable to McFarlane.

“The commandant has to allow the flexibility and to be open enough to say, ‘Hey, this is good for the Soldiers, this is a great program. How can we make it better? What can we do?’ ” he said. “If you don’t have that type of structure in an academy to allow the NCOES system to improve, it’s just going to stay stagnant.”

The Fort Hood academy is in regular contact with the Institute for Noncommissioned Officer Professional Development, as well as the Army’s other NCO academies. This was true before the Criterion program launched, but that communication has only increased since the writing program was rolled out across the Army.

“We try to keep all academies informed, …” Montez said. “Every time we get an update, every time we get an analysis, it gets loaded where everyone can see it up to NCOPOD. They usually provide a little error analysis, and this tells you how your academy scored and executed it.”

Other academies have struggled to set up the program and get BLC students to take the assessment. Montez points to a spreadsheet that shows the number of students who took the assessment at each academy.

“There are a lot of zeroes there, because there were only 14 [NCO academies] that were able to successfully get in there,” he said.

McFarlane said, “There’s a lot of communication on Blackboard between the academies that are brand new [to Criterion] … to my cadre and myself. They haven’t seen it before. We’ve been lucky because we piloted it first, and we had the opportunity to train a bunch of cadre before it was even sent to be piloted.”

The Fort Hood NCOA cadre had challenges at the inception of the program, as well, but they have worked diligently to implement the program effectively.

“We’re always trying to improve stuff,” Montez said. “We’re always looking at making it better, and what can we do. Even the automation systems we use are the latest, and we’re eventually going to go to tablets. That’s where we want to be. We’re not there yet, but we’re pretty close.

“And I’m hoping everyone else will ask, ‘Hey, what’s Fort Hood doing?’ ” he said. “We have some good instructors who know how to articulate all that stuff to the Soldiers. And when they come here for 22 days, I want them to know that it’s all about them. It’s all about you and improving you, making you a better noncommissioned officer. Don’t be afraid to take on any task.”

Fort Hood sets example for use of writing software during Basic Leader Course

File photo by Staff Sgt. Patricia Ramirez of 2014 Best Warrior competitors typing during the essay competition.

By CLIFFORD KYLE JONES
NCO Journal

A year-old pilot program to help new NCOs improve their writing was first rolled out at the III Corps NCO Academy at Fort Hood, Texas, and it has rapidly become just another way the cadre works to boost Soldiers’ performance and help their careers.

The program, called Criterion, is a web-based service that scores writing samples almost instantaneously and provides students with an overall score, as well as annotated diagnostic feedback on elements of grammar, usage, mechanics, style, organization and development.

“Fort Hood is one of the largest forces command posts, and we train approximately 250-300 students at the academy every 22 days, so it was an ideal place as far as location to conduct these tests here,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Joseph McFarlane, commandant of Fort Hood’s NCOA.

The academy was given wide berth in the implementation of the program, which Training and Doctrine Command rolled out last summer as part of the 22-day Warrior Leader Course — now the Basic Leader Course — at four sites, including Fort Hood.

Now Criterion is in use at all the Army’s NCO Academies, although many have struggled to launch and use the program effectively.

“Across the Army, we are looking for ways to improve NCO education in general,” Liston Bailey, Learning Innovations and Initiatives Division Institute for Noncommissioned Officer Professional Development chief at TRADOC headquarters, said when the program first launched at Fort Hood. “What we are actually attempting to do is transform the NCO education system into an NCO professional development system that will take into account training that sergeants do in every single domain; that includes the unit, self-development and in the institution.”

Through trial and error, the cadre at the III Corps NCOA have determined some best practices.

“We’re figuring out little ways to make it better,” said Sgt. Maj. Salvador Montez Jr., the NCOA’s deputy commandant. “Like this last class, we figured out little flaws we have to accommodate into our training calendar, as part of our training. The first time we just threw it out there.”

At Fort Hood, the assessment is administered on Day 1 of BLC, immediately after students check in on Day Zero. Taking the test early ensures that instructors have enough time to work with students who need help developing their writing skills and that students who miss the initial assessment have time to make it up.

“We’ve kind of organized the way we implemented for our cadre so they can go step by step, as well,” said Sgt. 1st Class Amber DeArmond, a senior group leader at the Fort Hood NCO Academy who led the implementation of the Criterion program.

For the students, she said, “We do a registration process.”

“So in Criterion, we can see how many individuals successfully enrolled in the program for our student activity. Then once we determine how many successfully enrolled, we only do the writing attempt for those students on Day 1,” she said. “After Day 1, when we do our first attempt, then we try to rectify the problem within 24 hours with the other students who weren’t successfully able to log on to the domain or (participate) for whatever reason. Then we do attempt No. 2 on Day 6.”

DeArmond said the academy has also changed the registration process since its inception to avoid using students’ names, so their personally identifiable information is protected.

The Criterion program gives students 45 minutes to write an essay on one of 400 possible topics. When they’re done, their essays are uploaded and the Criterion software gives each student’s essay a holistic score of up to six points. When students score ones or are given ranks of “advisory” because the software couldn’t score the essays, Fort Hood cadre know they need to spend extra time with those Soldiers. Usually, fewer than 5 percent of the students score one or below.

“It gauges how to employ the cadre, especially when we go through our communicative writing lesson plan,” DeArmond said. “We can tell who needs additional assistance and how we can be of assistance by looking into how they scored and where their errors occurred.”

She said BLC Soldiers’ scores have averaged about a 3.5, and she believes the target should be about a five.

There are no minimum requirements for essay scores as part of BLC; the Criterion grading is merely an assessment tool. However, BLC students receive a block of instruction on how to effectively write an NCO Evaluation Report (DA Form 2166-8), an award (DA Form 638), a sworn statement (DA Form 2823) and a memorandum for record, so the early assessment tool can be beneficial in identifying students who might benefit most from extra help during those exercises.

“These students are going to do this again a couple more times,” McFarlane said. “This is the Basic Leader Course, formerly known as WLC, and then they’re going to take it again in Advanced Leader Course, with College Level Writing 1. And then they’re going to take it again in the Senior Leader Course, with College Level Writing 2. And then the Sergeants Major Academy, which is like executive level.

“So this is the first step, the base line,” he said. “The end result is to create a senior-level NCO who can communicate effectively and clearly, inside large organizations or outside, even talking to the media and the press, trying to develop them as they grow up into the senior levels.”

DeArmond agrees and notes that the Soldier’s performance on the assessment will follow him or her through the Army Career Tracker system.

“I think the program is a good implementation inside of NCOES,” she said. “It’s designed from the lowest level to the top, and it’s designed to ensure that these junior Soldiers are progressing at a level equivalent to their skills. So by the time they reach the goal of becoming a command sergeant major or sergeant major, they’re able to apply themselves using the literacy and competency they need. Writing skill is one of the main tools that they’ll need to be successful.”

As the program progresses from pilot to full implementation, Montez predicts that “not only is the program going to change the students, it’s going to change the instructor prerequisites.”

“You have to have some college; you have to have some type of ability to write as cadre,” he said. “You can’t just be working with the program if your punctuation and grammar are sideways also.”

Montez and McFarlane acknowledge that the III Corps NCO Academy is fortunate to have trained and highly educated NCOs, such as DeArmond, who is about to complete her doctorate.

“Going back to education, you have to have some oversight,” Montez said. “We have Dr. DeArmond here, but [everyone will] have to have somebody with a degree who can see things, so another member of the cadre can say, ‘Hey, this is what I see. Do you see the same?’ Someone who understands that verbiage: a dangling modifier, you have a noun in between two verbs, and explain to the students which verb does it fall to. How do you hear about all that?”

McFarlane notes the need, but also sees the changes happening already.

“Back when we were young, the officer corps had all the education,” he said of himself and Montez. “They all came out of West Point or had their four-year degrees or even more. And then you had the enlisted force that pretty much had a high-school diploma or GED. They were the guys and gals who were turning the wrenches in the motorpool or cleaning the gun tubes on the tanks, executing the guidance given by the officers. And now it’s merging to the center where everybody has a whole bunch of education, the officers and the senior NCOs. … You had the blue-collar force and the white-collar element, but where are we at now? It’s some kind of light blue.”

Even after the formal education, NCOs may have some learning to do to understand the way young, junior enlisted Soldiers communicate.

McFarlane noted that many of the younger Soldiers going through BLC are more accustomed to texting than writing formally. The transition from abbreviations and emojis to scoring well on the writing assessment can be tough.

“If I have a student write a sentence into Criterion with hashtags and ‘lol,’ even though everyone understands it, the program will say the student fails,” Montez said. “The students, that’s how we’re getting them now.”

To illustrate the differences to students, Montez works to break down the process.

“Sometimes, I’ll tell them just to write something like they’re talking to me, just a normal conversation, just write. And then we’ll pick it apart,” he said. He tells them, “ ‘Give me a sentence right now, tell me something like you’re speaking to me.’ And they’ll come out there, ‘Hey, Sergeant Major, let’s keep it on the down low and go dis way and you know …’

“Meanwhile, I’m like, ‘OK, all right, write it down,’ ” he said. “I get them involved and then articulate it.”

DeArmond has worked to incorporate corrective behavior into the instruction before the students even start writing.

“Part of it is organizing,” she said. “The more organized you are in delivering the information and breaking it down step by step, the better. One idea that the deputy gave for how to write a memo is take them through the brainstorming process first. So we give them a topic, two or three students in the class will start off by brainstorming and researching what an organization or program is about.”

In this and myriad other ways, DeArmond wants to ensure that Soldiers get the most out of their time at the NCO Academy.

“When noncommissioned officers come to NCOES, this is their prime opportunity for institutional training. … They get opportunities to progress here. They get the newest information here. They learn the newest material here. This is the opportunity in NCOs’ careers when they actually get the time to solely focus on institutional training. A lot of benefits come out of this academy.

“They don’t know what is out there to help them and set them up for success,” she said. “There’s not one clear pathway for an NCO to say this is the way you succeed. So opening the doors to different opportunities is what the academy is about.”

Army resiliency program helped MMA fighter in cage and as Soldier

By CLIFFORD KYLE JONES
NCO Journal

After winning “The Ultimate Fighter 16,” Sgt. 1st Class Colton Smith struggled to reach the next level in his professional fighting career. An Army program designed to build resilience is helping him get there.

Smith has been working with Bradley Williams, a Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness Master Resilience Trainer performance expert, several months before he won “Ultimate Fighter” in December 2012.

Smith lost his next three Ultimate Fighting Championship matches, the last one in late 2014. Since then, he competed on the local circuit and signed with the World Series of Fighting last year.

“I’ve been on a win streak and a lot of that is due to my mental game, my mental program with the CSF2,” Smith said.

Sgt. 1st Class Colton Smith and his corner Sgt. 1st Class Jeremie Oliver visited Bradley Williams, a Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness Master Resilience Trainer performance expert at Fort Hood, Texas. (Photo by Clifford Kyle Jones / NCO Journal)
Sgt. 1st Class Colton Smith and his corner Sgt. 1st Class Jeremie Oliver visited Bradley Williams, a Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness Master Resilience Trainer performance expert at Fort Hood, Texas. (Photo by Clifford Kyle Jones / NCO Journal)

The CSF2 is part of the Army’s Ready and Resilient program. Through online services and consultations with Master Resilience Trainers and performance and institutional enhancement experts, the CSF2 helps boost the resilience and performance of Soldiers, their families and Department of the Army civilians.

During a recent consultation, Williams talked with Smith about his breathing and managing his heart rate. They also explored opportunities for biofeedback, in which a machine measures and displays a patient’s vital signs so he or she can control the physiological responses resulting from high-intensity activities such as actual combat or mixed-martial arts matches.

“We’ve talked about breathing a lot before, but I never really talked about heart rate itself,” Williams told Smith. “It’s something that I’ve been diving into more with Soldiers, and it’s certainly going to apply to fighting as well.”

Williams recommended a book, “On Combat” by retired Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, that describes the psychological and physiological effects of combat on the human body.

“But combat isn’t the only scenario where the body is doing all kinds of things under pressure,” Williams said. Grossman “calls them different condition levels based on heart rate. He talks about Condition Black being potentially the most dangerous. When our heart rates get above 175, a lot of things go out the window — from our ability to process mentally, which obviously matters so you’re making the right decisions in the cage; tunnel vision. …”

“Oh yeah, I used to have that,” Smith said. “For my first fights, it was actually a benefit, but the guys weren’t at the same level.” As his opponents’ skill level increased, losing awareness of the whole octagon started to catch up to Smith. He had to work to calm himself to maintain regular perception.

The eyes can begin to skew depth perception and the ears can start to exclude some sounds and voices, Williams said. Depth perception is critical to striking targets and auditory exclusion can keep a fighter from hearing advice from his corner.

Smith has been checking his pulse and using diaphragmatic breathing — breathing from the belly — to reduce his heart rate quickly. He recently started yoga classes to boost flexibility and breathing control.

“My last fight, my vision was amazing and I could hear every single thing my cornerman said,” Smith said. “Depth perception was probably a little off. As I watched the video, I should have been a couple inches further in and I would have been able to tag the dude a lot more.”

Williams and Smith also talked about pre-fight routines and how to control them — maintaining a sense of calm while still keeping energy levels high, as well as preparing for the things that can go wrong and not letting them mess with Smith’s mental preparation.

For this visit, Sgt. 1st Class Jeremie Oliver went with Smith to see Williams. Oliver is an instructor at the Fort Hood Combatives School, where Smith is the NCO in charge. During his last several fights, Smith has also had Oliver in his corner. Oliver has been taking care of logistics for the fights and anything having to do with commissioning or promoting the fights.

“It’s been awesome,” Smith said. “Instead of wondering what corner’s going to take care of that, I know he’s going to take care of it, so it’s been phenomenal.”

Williams wanted to explore how Smith’s team can help him with his fight, and Oliver was eager for the advice.

CSF2_2Oliver met Smith when Oliver competed in the 2013 Fort Hood Combatives Tournament. Smith had already won “Ultimate Fighter,” so when Oliver advanced past intermediate matches he asked for some advice.

“I still remember,” Oliver said. “He said, ‘If your back’s up against the cage, you’re losing.’ ”

After that, they became friends, and when Smith needed help in the corner, Oliver volunteered.

“I organize all his training and get the other coaches on board,” Oliver said. “I get it from being an NCO — that leadership role of organization, pulling things together.

“When it comes to competition, the competitor shouldn’t have to worry about the little stuff — how we get to the venue, the route we take to the locker room, who’s going to wrap his hands, what time the photoshoots are, what time the interviews are,” he continued. “Even as far as our rehydration plan after weigh-ins — we have a very intricate, scientific setup when we go. After weigh-ins, I start a clock and I have all his supplements already mixed and all he has to do is drink them. He has a lot on his mind at that point. I can’t even imagine what goes through his mind. So I try to minimize some of that and make him as comfortable as possible.”

That help is one of the things that keeps Smith at his best in the cage. But it’s support that Smith, Oliver and the rest of the instructors carry over into the combatives school, as well, and they have all realized the benefits from the CSF2.

“It’s been extremely beneficial for myself and all my instructors,” Smith said. “I was really blessed to be in contact with the CSF2 program here at Fort Hood. That has brought my game to another level, as a Soldier as well. It’s unbelievable what they do for prep for [the Expert Infantryman Badge], for gunnery, for deployments, for Soldiers who are having trouble focusing before they go to a school like air assault.”

Combatives plays important role at Fort Hood

By CLIFFORD KYLE JONES
NCO Journal

The Modern Army Combatives Program’s story began at Fort Benning, Georgia, but a significant part of its future is being written at Fort Hood, Texas.

The Fort Hood Combatives School’s chief instructor, Sgt. 1st Class Colton Smith, is also a professional mixed martial artist and signed with the World Series of Fighting after several Ultimate Fighting Championship fights and a victory on the reality show “The Ultimate Fighter 16.” The post’s combatives team won the All-Army Combatives Championship three years in a row. And the school’s reputation draws professional fighters and aspiring mixed martial artists from throughout the region, including from Austin and Waco.

“At Fort Hood, we’ve been blessed with III Corps commanders and sergeants major who understand that [combatives] is a big deal,” Smith said.

Combatives2Smith believes strongly in the myriad benefits of the combatives program to Soldiers, some obvious and some subtle. Clearly, Smith has benefited from the fighting skills the combatives program imparts on Soldiers, and he attributes most of his professional success to his time being trained in and training combatives.

“I’m obviously very passionate about it. I don’t do combatives or promote combatives to be a professional fighter,” he said. “I am a professional fighter; however, that’s because of combatives. I’ve been able to fight at the top level because of the Army Combatives program, no other reason. The Army Combatives program has taught me how to fight against some of the best athletes in the world and still be a Soldier at the same time.”

Even outside the cage, though, Smith says combatives has benefited every aspect of his life. He has attended Ranger School, Sapper School, Airborne School and Air Assault School. He also completed all four levels of the Army combatives program, before levels 3 and 4 were merged into the master trainer program, and he completed special operations combatives training.

“I’ve been blessed to go through a lot of the military’s training, …” he said. “What’s changed me the most, as a leader, as a man, as an athlete, is the Army combatives program. There’s no other skill in the Army that’s going to teach you the discipline that Army combatives does, as well as the confidence.”

Combatives4That confidence is one of the most important benefits of the combatives training, Smith said.

“When you have a Soldier who’s never been in a fistfight before, and he has to achieve the clinch in the option 3 drill, you see his confidence rise,” he said.

Smith says that as he watches Soldiers move through combatives courses and graduate to the next levels, he can see their leadership abilities grow along with their confidence. The physical presence and resilience they’re building can’t help but be reflected in their character, as well.

And that saves lives. Of course, Soldiers trained in combatives are better able to defend themselves in hand-to-hand combat, but they also have the confidence to de-escalate many situations without resorting to violence or weapons, Smith said.

Downrange in Iraq and Afghanistan, Smith said, “You’re around people and you don’t know who the enemy is a lot of times.” Having combatives skills and confidence in them can mean the difference between opening fire and creating enemies and entering a tense situation confident enough to diffuse it, winning hearts and minds.

But if those people are the enemy, it might also be the difference between life and death.

Combatives1“You never know when [someone is] going to attack you, grab you, grab your weapon,” he said. “You get shot at? Your weapon gets hit, now your weapon is down: What are you going to do? You don’t know, because a majority haven’t learned how to properly fight.”

Sgt. 1st Class Jeremie Oliver, an instructor at the combatives school who also serves as a cornerman during Smith’s professional matches, said, “We’re not teaching people how to fight. I think that’s the biggest misconception.”

Instead, he says, combatives training boosts mental capacity and makes Soldiers more comfortable in their jobs regardless of military occupational specialties.

“There are a lot of Soldiers who come through our program — the level 1, the level 2 — who come back and say, ‘I never realized I could be put in an adverse situation and still move forward,’” Oliver said.

Overcoming adversity isn’t always about physically fighting your way out, Oliver said. He pointed out that the combatives school has offered specialized training to military police intended to simulate domestic violence situations, among the most dangerous calls law enforcement officers receive. But the combatives school was tasked with teaching officers how to calm two people down without resorting to violence.

“It’s not all about shooting somebody or beating somebody up,” Oliver said. “There are escalations of that training. And I think the Army needs to push that. We can use these techniques and spur on training. The horizon is unlimited.”

Combatives5Although Smith and Oliver served in the infantry, many of the other instructors at the combatives school have varied backgrounds, Smith said.

“It’s not just infantry or combat-arms [Soldiers] who are doing combatives or teaching combatives,” he said. “Some of my best instructors come from the soft-skilled MOSs.”

Smith said instructors at the school include an ammunition handler, a cardiology specialist, a medic and a Soldier from the signal corps. They are hand-selected by the school, because of their background in martial arts or other disciplines or because of their passion for combatives education and training, Smith said.

They are all encouraged to take advantage of training opportunities at Fort Hood – including Air Assault School, the Combat Leaders Course and the Small Arms Master Gunner Course. All of the instructors are Army Basic Instructor Course certified, and a stint at the school offers opportunities to attend Ranger School, Sapper School and Airborne School.

“When they leave here and they go back to their units, they’re going to be better Soldiers because of it, …” Smith said. “They’re going to go back to their unit and be not only a force-multiplier because of their combatives techniques but a force-multiplier because of the extracurriculars they’ve done.”

The Fort Hood Combatives School is a Morale, Welfare and Recreation facility, one of the few operated by Soldiers, Smith said. As an MWR facility, the school offers services to Soldiers and their dependents, and its reputation has drawn visitors from law enforcement, the Secret Service and several “three-letter federal agencies,” Smith said.

“They understand what we’re doing here is working,” he said.

Combatives3Staff Sgt. Luis Carter has been an instructor at the combatives school since 2014.

“Of course I can’t speak for the other posts, because I’m not there, but I will say that we do have the best combatives program out there,” he said and smiled.

He attributes the success of the Fort Hood program to the dedication of the staff.

“We all enjoy what we do here,” Carter said. “Everyone brings something to the table, whether it be they wrestled, whether they boxed, whether they flat out just have the desire for combatives. And I think that is what is the most important component. We all love what we do. We’re here all day from the time PT starts to 20-hundred.”

For his part, Carter practiced jiujitsu for 10 years before starting at the school. Since being selected as an instructor, he has picked up boxing and muay thai skills.

From its inception in the early 2000s, the Modern Army Combatives Program has focused on what were determined by the Army to be the most effective martial arts skills, including elements from jiujitsu, judo, wrestling and kickboxing.

“Those are the most practical applications for hand-to-hand engagement, whether you’re downtown at the bar defending yourself or your battle buddy or you’re overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan and in close quarters,” Smith said.

As the head of instruction, he has worked to hone those skills while developing other techniques and martial arts. He says he has worked with civilian instructors and other agencies to enhance instruction for the school’s students and its instructors.

“It’s a perishable skill, it’s just like land-navigation or weapons firing,” Smith said. “I’m really big on remolding and looking outside the box to make our Soldiers more lethal.”

For instance, civilian muay thai experts often teach classes on the Thailand martial art’s striking and grappling techniques during the lunch hour.

“We’re here during lunch!” Carter said. “During lunch, we’re still training. This is life. This is more than just a job. We do this all day. I think that’s where we separate ourselves from most combative schools.

“There isn’t any one of those students who can’t come here after work and say I need help and we’re going to be on the mat with them,” said. “They can come in at 5:30 in the morning, crust in their eyes, haven’t brushed they’re teeth, haven’t eaten breakfast: ‘Sergeant, I need help.’ No problem, I’ll put my PTs on, let’s go get on the mat.”