By JONATHAN (JAY) KOESTER
Out in the rolling hills of north-central Oregon, far from the crowded cities near the coast, Soldiers train to join the U.S. Army infantry.
Camp Umatilla, near Hermiston, Oregon, lacks the forested landscape and waterfalls usually associated with the Pacific Northwest. Instead, Soldiers who want to change their military occupational specialty learn infantry skills while rucking past tumbleweeds and eerie-looking symmetrical mounds.
Camp Umatilla is home to the Oregon National Guard’s 1st Infantry Training Battalion of the 249th Regional Training Institute and the only certified Army infantry training academy west of the Mississippi River in the continental United States. The camp was originally built during World War II to serve as a munitions storage area. Exactly 1,001 munitions storage bunkers — now mostly empty — still dot the landscape, visible to travelers on the nearby interstate highway.
Though the history is interesting, infantry course instructors of the 249th RTI are more worried about the future and preparing Soldiers for the demands of service in the infantry.
For those already in or transitioning to an infantry MOS, three courses are taught at Camp Umatilla. Junior enlisted Soldiers who want to join the infantry go through the MOS-Transition course. NCOs who want to transition to infantry go through the Infantry Transition Course. And those NCOs who are already in the infantry and seek to be promoted can go through the Advanced Leader Course.
Though active-duty and reserve Soldiers from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, and other duty stations train at Camp Umatilla, recently the two transition courses were crowded with National Guard Soldiers from Washington and California, said Staff Sgt. Henry Snyder, a primary instructor for the RTI.
“This year is kind of different than traditional years because there are National Guard units in California and Washington transitioning into a Stryker Infantry Brigade,” Snyder said. “So a lot of these Soldiers are being told they need to change their MOS or look elsewhere. We get Soldiers from a variety of MOSs and backgrounds, but by the end of the course, everyone is on the same page.”
Though some must transition to infantry to keep their Army careers on the right paths, others volunteer to join the infantry because they are looking for something different than their current job, said Sgt. 1st Class Ryan Austin, course manager for the RTI’s infantry courses.
“A lot of people transition because they like the job better,” Austin said. “They want to be one of the ground-pounders who carry the guns and do the shooting. They like to lead the way. It’s usually pretty aggressive, type-A personalities.”
When asked what Soldiers transitioning to infantry are most surprised by or have the hardest time with, there are different answers, but Snyder said it was the overall stress of infantry life.
“I think a lot of them coming into this feel that the infantry is just a bunch of mindless people who will run into a fire instead of run away from it,” Snyder said. “But there is a culture shock of what really goes into everything. From mission planning, to execution, to recovery, there are a lot of meticulous things that happen. It’s a very difficult school that we run, but real-life situations are way more difficult than what we have here. We can add a little bit of stress — time management stuff, or carry heavy things for long distances — but, at the end of the day, nobody is shooting at them and nobody is getting blown up. We can’t paint that picture of that stress and being able to think on that level, but we try as hard as we can to create a stress factor and also have the thought process that goes with it.”
Sgt. 1st Class Eddie Black, MOS-T infantry instructor, said the physical difficulty of the job can surprise people, especially when they have to complete the 12-mile ruck march with more than 70 pounds of equipment.
“The number one question — by far — is, ‘We have to carry this much weight on our backs?’” Black said. “It shocks people. Even people who think they have been training for this, they’ve been carrying, like, 35 pounds for six miles. That ain’t training. 35 pounds? I carry more than that in beer when I go camping. The first ruck march wakes them up.”
Black said the top lesson he tries to impress upon Soldiers transitioning into infantry is that the workout routine they had before probably isn’t going to cut it anymore. Both the frequency and intensity of their exercise will need to increase.
“A lot of people go to the gym and it’s like, ‘Let’s do an arm curl. Let’s do a bench press,’” Black said. “That’s not working out. I’m talking about high intensity workouts. When is the last time you worked out and you ended laying down on a filthy floor, thankful for the opportunity to lay down? That’s a workout, and that’s what I show the students.”
The 12-mile ruck march is just one of the items on the Infantry High Physical Demands Task List. The items on the list need to be checked off before a Soldier can join the infantry. But despite the difficulty of the ruck march, carrying 45-pound ammo boxes, or dragging a 268-pound person 15 meters, it is a much simpler task that is causing the most problems for the newest generation of Soldiers: throwing a grenade.
It turns out that, in an era when youth play on smartphones instead of throwing a ball around with friends, the seemingly simple task of throwing a one-pound grenade 35 meters is causing the most failures, Snyder said.
“In this computer generation, there are a lot of people who come through who have never thrown before; they’ve never thrown a one-pound anything,” Snyder said. “So a lot of people struggle with that. We take a lot of time to help them just with the basic mechanics of how to throw something. Some of them grasp it, and some of them don’t. That one is our biggest thing that knocks people out.”
Construction of the Umatilla Army Ordnance Depot began in 1941. With rail lines nearby, plus a port on the Columbia River, the site allowed easy movement of munitions while being inland enough to be safe from sea attacks.
Originally, 1,000 of the munitions storage bunkers were built. On March 21, 1944, a bomb being loaded into one of the bunkers exploded, killing six workers, said Maj. Timothy Merritt of the 249th RTI. A plaque on the post memorializes those who lost their lives that day.
“But the design of the bunker worked and it didn’t cause a chain reaction, blowing up the entire post,” Merritt said. “They then built two more, so there are 1,001 of these out there now. It’s pretty surreal when you go out there in the field.”
After World War II, the depot continued to store and supply munitions until 1962, when the installation’s name was changed to the Umatilla Army Depot and it began storing chemical weapons. In 1994, the depot shipped its final supplies of conventional weapons. In 1996, the name was changed again, to Umatilla Chemical Depot. After the Umatilla Chemical Agent Disposal Facility was built, the chemical weapons on the post began to be disposed of by incineration in 2004.
With all chemical weapons at the installation safely destroyed by the beginning of 2012, the incineration plant was demolished. About 7,500 acres on Camp Umatilla are now used for training by the Oregon National Guard. Other parts of the camp are in the process of being transferred to local governments for various uses, including a wildlife preserve.
Women in infantry
In December, Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced the Army would open all branches and specialties to women. Sgt. Shelby Atkins of the Wyoming National Guard became the Army’s first female enlisted infantry Soldier in May. In August, two women successfully completed the 249th RTI’s Infantry Transition Course, making them among the first enlisted women to transition to infantry.
Sgt. Jennifer Sargeant of the Washington National Guard transitioned from the 88M (motor transport operator) MOS. When asked during the course if she had any thoughts or pride about being one of the first women to join the infantry, she said, “No. I’m just here to work.”
“It’s going well,” Sargeant said. “The difficulty of the ruck march was probably the most surprising, but I think everybody kind of realized that. It was an eye-opener for everybody here. That was probably the most challenging mentally. Otherwise it’s just been work hard, pay attention, learn everything you can.”
Staff Sgt. Heidi Brezynski of the Washington National Guard transitioned from the 68W (health care specialist) MOS. She also said she had no special feelings about being one of the first women in infantry.
“I’ve always been in male-dominated industries,” Brezynski said. “It’s nothing new.”
Speaking during the course, Austin said he could tell Sargeant and Brezynski had what it took to be in the infantry.
“We’ve actually had other classes with females; they just didn’t make it all the way through,” Austin said. “This is the first one where I think they’ll make it through. They are doing well.”
Though there have been changes to the course program of instruction in the past year — adding measurable skill sets and reducing PowerPoint time — how the course is taught overall hasn’t changed with women joining the ranks, Black said.
“The way we train Soldiers, the intensity, and what we expect from them, that hasn’t changed at all,” Black said. “These two individuals have delivered exactly what we hoped for them to deliver.”
And whatever slight changes come to how the Army trains infantry Soldiers, men and women, the major demands will remain the same, Black said.
“These tactics, techniques and procedures will change; weapons will change,” he said. “But at the end of the day, you have to be able to carry 70 pounds of gear over a long distance, sleep in a hole, eat lousy food, use hand and arm signals in a crazy environment, through the worst inclement weather, and get a job done. That’s it right there.”