It’s not that Staff Sgt. Jonathan Miller, the 2014 U.S. Army Drill Sergeant of the Year, doesn’t want to help the 14 competitors in the 2015 Drill Sergeant and AIT Platoon Sergeant of the Year competition. It’s just that it can take a while to explain what the competition — scheduled for Sept. 7-10 at Fort Jackson, S.C. — entails.
“The list of things not to expect is a lot shorter than the list of what to expect,” Miller said. “What they can’t expect is a lot of sleep. The competitors will be tested both physically and mentally, through a long list of tasks and events that will also test their competence and ability to instruct.”
The four-day competition includes obstacle courses, exams, a rappel tower and plenty of road marching. But the most important thing that sets the competition apart, Miller said, is the key NCO skill of teaching.
“The thing that is vital to know about our competition is that we are the Army’s elite trainers, and we encompass that in our competition,” Miller said. “We absolutely involve all the physical aspects and all the competency aspects, including exams and essays, requiring knowledge and the ability to articulate. But then we also have the added part of instruction. We have our drill sergeants and our AIT platoon sergeants instructing Soldiers, and they’re evaluated on their ability to teach individual and collective tasks.
“Another important thing to consider about our competition is that you can’t have the Best Warrior, Best Sapper or Best Ranger without first being trained by a drill sergeant or AIT platoon sergeant,” Miller said. “These competitors represent the very best drill sergeants and AIT platoon sergeants the Army has to offer.”
The winners of last year’s competition — Miller; Staff Sgt. Christopher Croslin, 2014 Army Reserve Drill Sergeant of the year; and Sgt. 1st Class Thomas Russell, 2014 AIT Platoon Sergeant of the Year — helped organize this year’s event and will be there to inspire the competitors through the grueling days starting Sept. 7.
Last year’s event ended with a drill sergeant reunion dinner to honor the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Army Drill Sergeant School, plus the opening of a Drill Sergeant Hall of Fame. The drill sergeant reunion was so well received that the United States Army Drill Sergeant Association is planning another one at the end of the competition this year. The 51st anniversary reunion dinner will be Sept. 11 at Fort Jackson. All former drill sergeants — retired and currently serving in the Army — are invited to attend the competition and the reunion dinner.
Last year was the association’s first, so Miller is hoping the events continue to grow.
“We have a lot more members now. I’m hoping, as we all are in the association, that we continue to grow and that each year our celebration gets better and better,” Miller said. “Obviously, we can’t expect every former or current drill sergeant to show up every single year, but what I would love is when I’m retired, 30 years from now, to see the United States Army Drill Sergeant Association and the anniversary still going strong.”
Want to attend?
• For more information on the competition or the 51st anniversary events, including the reunion dinner, email or call Staff Sgt. Miller at email@example.com or 757-501-7022.
• You can also get more information, and fill out a RSVP form, at the drill sergeant association homepage at www.armydrillsergeants.com.
As the Army continues its rebalance to the Pacific after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the role of air defense in the area shifts as well. Leaders of the 94th Army Air and Missile Defense Command are making sure NCOs are prepared for the mission by giving them training, trust and, most importantly, the authority to take charge.
The importance of the command’s mission was made clear in 2013 when, in response to threats from North Korea, President Obama ordered the first deployment of a THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) air defense battery to Guam. The creation and deployment of Task Force Talon, the unit that is charged with the defense of Guam mission, was an important demonstration to U.S. allies that the Army is paying attention in the Pacific, said Brig. Gen. Eric Sanchez, the commanding general of the 94th AAMDC.
The 94th AAMDC organized Task Force Talon to be the higher headquarters unit to provide important command and control and sustainment functions for the THAAD battery. The enablers who compose Task Force Talon and support the THAAD battery include a signal detachment, security forces and a headquarters element.
“The THAAD mission is tied to the Army’s realignment and trying to bring more to the Pacific,” Sanchez said. “It’s a great capability. It’s the only THAAD battery that’s deployed in the Army right now, so it shows the importance that our government has put on the Pacific. It provides great capability for the defense of Guam, which is considered a homeland defense capability. People think about the homeland, and they think of the United States or maybe Hawaii, but they don’t really think about Guam; but Guam is one of our territories, and we treat that as part of our homeland defense.”
Sgt. Maj. Mario Guerrero, G3 operations sergeant major for the 94th AAMDC, was the second sergeant major to lead the THAAD battery in Guam. He said the importance of the mission was clear.
“The main reason the THAAD battery was deployed in the first place was as a deterrence to those regional threats and also in support of the rebalance to the Asian Pacific area of responsibility,” Guerrero said. “Just having a THAAD battery at a strategic point, as Guam is, that’s a big deterrence to any regional threats. It’s a powerful statement. We don’t really need to do anything else. That force projection is enough.”
With a small group of Soldiers defending the island of Guam, NCO leadership becomes even more important, Guerrero said.
“Task Force Talon at the time was about 10 of us,” Guerrero said. “We’re asking these NCOs to do a lot more than they’re used to — one or two grades above their paygrade. With that many people, they were asked to do what a battalion staff would do. It’s mostly NCOs, with a few officers, and they’re doing a tremendous job.”
With the 94th AAMDC headquarters located on Oahu, Hawaii, but with its units spread over a large area of the Pacific in different time zones, it’s difficult if not impossible to pick up a phone and manage NCOs, Sanchez said. Noncommissioned officers are counted on to know their job and take charge.
“As spread out as we are, and the distance that we have from our headquarters to where our units are, the NCOs have to step up,” Sanchez said. “For instance, at the forward-based radar sites, there is a very small ratio of officers to Soldiers. And we have contractors who they have to interact with as well, so that’s another unique piece to what they have to do out there. We’re expecting NCOs to do what normally a lieutenant or captain would do because that’s the way we are set up, especially at those remote sites.”
NCOs in the command know their mission of training Soldiers on the THAAD and Patriot missile defense systems is crucial to the fight, said 1st Sgt. Isaiah Brown, first sergeant of Headquarters and Headquarters Battery, 1st Battalion, 1st Air Defense Artillery Regiment, 94th AAMDC.
“We are the cornerstone to prepare our Soldiers for combat,” Brown said. “The NCO role is key in our defense mission because NCOs continually train Soldiers to demonstrate deterrence to the enemy. Our NCOs always stay prepared, and they motivate our Soldiers to do the mission they set out to do. Bottom line is, the NCO corps is the centerpiece that makes us run, function and be combat-ready.
“From the HHB perspective, we make it a strong point to train our Soldiers and make them understand the importance of certifying and maintaining our equipment,” Brown said. “So from the NCO perspective, they take it to heart as far as conducting maintenance, corrosion prevention on our equipment, understanding the importance of being able to be up and ready to support our N-hour sequence. From an NCO perspective, they fully understand the importance of training and being ready.”
To prepare NCOs for the responsibility they will have to take on in case of an attack, leaders of the 94th AAMDC make sure NCOs and Soldiers are included in and trained on all tasks. To let every Soldier know he or she is important to the mission, Sanchez started a shadow program. As part of the program, a junior Soldier follows him throughout his day, including to high-level meetings.
“At the end of every day that I had these shadows, they all were amazed at what our mission truly was and the things that we do,” Sanchez said. “That can get lost if you are just behind your desk or just working the wires to put the computers together. But I tried to show them, hey, that wire put in my computer is helping me provide mission command over a great span of distance and a pretty important mission. So I think they get it, and we try to reiterate that every chance we can.”
Most units preach trusting their NCOs, but often that trust is not operationalized, said Command Sgt. Maj. Finis Dodson, the command sergeant major of the 94th AAMDC. The 94th command makes sure NCOs really are allowed to take on their duties independently.
“The main thing for an NCO is, are you really empowered?” Dodson said. “Are you really trusted? Are you valued? And in this command, the NCOs are valued, they are empowered and they are trusted. They are afforded opportunities, so the NCOs see that they are value-added. And that goes to the coming Noncommissioned Officer Evaluation Report. You have to have some way to show that you are capable of doing complicated tasks, not just the basic, routine NCO tasks of yesteryear.”
Trust in the Army’s noncommissioned officers is not only important to the mission and to building a strong NCO corps, but it can ease any number of problems that crop up, Sanchez said.
“I heard a lot of concern from my colonels and lieutenant colonels about the turnover we are going to have this summer, with some gaps before the next officer comes in after the last one has left,” Sanchez said. “I just told them, ‘Now is the time we need to power down to our NCOs.’ Too often as officers, we think we need to do it all ourselves or think that we are the only ones who can do it. So, during the past few months, we have powered down a number of things. My biweekly SITREP (Situation Report) that gets sent up and out to all my leadership is now done by an NCO. It goes through QA/QC (Quality assurance/quality control) with my chief of staff or my deputy commander, but it starts out at the sergeant and staff sergeant level. Just another example of where the NCOs are stepping up to do some of the normal staff functions that normally would be done by an officer. And as far as I’m concerned, I don’t see any difference when it comes to me. It’s ready for prime time. I hit send, and it goes out.”
Sgt. Maj. Johnny Woodley, G3 current operations sergeant major for the 94th AAMDC, saw the process in action during his time as part of Task Force Talon.
“We had a sergeant managing a budget of more than $10 million — a sergeant, by himself,” Woodley said. “Normally that’s officers who do that. NCOs are truly the backbone of air defense for THAAD down in Guam.”
The NCOs in the command are taking the opportunities given to them and running with them, Guerrero said.
“Compared to when I came in the Army, the type of NCO who is in the Army nowadays is much more autonomous; they know what they need to do,” Guerrero said. “If they need some guidance, they’ll ask for some guidance. But for the most part, they know what’s expected of them, and they’ll go ahead and take charge. Any unit that is part of the 94th, there is constant leader development, constant staff development, because of the nature of the work they do on a daily basis.”
In addition to being empowered to take on tasks, NCOs in the 94th AAMDC get the broadening experiences of frequently working with allies, as well as jointly with the other military branches. The command answers to both the Army and the Air Force and is headquarted on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.
Working so closely with the Air Force, as well as the Navy and Marines, helps NCOs get a wider view of the fight, Dodson said.
“We are one of the few units here in the Pacific to have that constant dialogue with our Navy, Air Force and Marine counterparts,” Dodson said. “They work side-by-side. On THAAD, they are right there with the Air Force, and they work with the Navy also in Guam. They figure out how to get things done. And that’s what really builds adaptable leaders and NCOs in our command.
“Every component of the military, we engage with,” Dodson said. “There is no, ‘I’m just going to do Army work.’ For us, we’re producing a leader for the Army who can be put anywhere and perform. Our leaders know how to adapt. They know the basics of what each one of those services brings to the fight and how they can capitalize and use those resources to the betterment of our mission. That’s really beneficial as we downsize. Do we really have somebody who is adaptable? Do we really have somebody who is innovative and creative? Can they go out there and engage? You talk about a broadening assignment: Everything we do is broadening.”
The Soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 1st Air Defense Artillery Regiment, 94th AAMDC, are a good example of how NCOs in the command engage with many different services and countries. The Army battalion is located on an Air Force base in Japan, leading to many opportunities for cross training and working together, Brown said.
“We’ve had bilateral training, where officers, NCOs and Soldiers have gone over and trained and spent the week with a Japanese force on their base, doing training, living with them,” Brown said. “It’s been a great opportunity. It’s definitely made us closer. We even had the chance as first sergeants to watch them run drills on their Patriot equipment. It was a great event because they definitely do it differently, but it was effective.
“Not only do we socialize and operate with the Japanese forces, but there are a lot of functions where the NCOs cross-talk with the other services,” Brown said. “HHB did an exercise with the Marines recently for Warrior Leader time. That was all NCO-led across the Marines, the Army and the Air Force. Being here on an Air Force Base, with the Air Force, Marines and Navy all being here, there is a lot of cross-coordination between the branches and the local Japanese forces. It has really brought all of the services full circle around each other to make things happen. They come to us for support, and we go to them for support, and that’s a key relationship to have.”
Command Sgt. Maj. Stephan Mumpower, the command sergeant major of 1st Battalion, 1st Air Defense Artillery Regiment, 94th AAMDC, said working closely with allies and sister services helps the mission.
“We definitely share lessons learned amongst one another,” Mumpower said. “We all have the same issues here when it comes to maintenance. With the sea air out here in Japan and how it affects the equipment, we share lessons learned on corrosion and how to take care of the equipment.”
Woodley agreed that the sharing led to a stonger NCO corps, as well as a stronger U.S. military in general.
“The Army, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard, we created a joint NCO leadership panel,” Woodley said. “We as senior leaders would go and talk to the Airmen’s Leadership Course students before they graduated. We would share our leadership styles and leadership techniques to every class that was about to graduate, so they could see how leadership is across services. It paid big dividends for us because we are sharing knowledge across branches.”
Hearts and minds
With NCOs spread across the Pacific, often in remote areas, it’s up to them to also take on the “hearts and minds” missions that may not usually fall to someone at their level, Sanchez said.
“Our headquarters being in Hawaii and everything else being forward of the dateline requires that our NCOs step up and do things that may be out of their comfort zones,” Sanchez said. “But it is making them a much stronger NCO corps. We have first sergeants and others out there engaging with mayors of cities in Japan and Korea. We have a sergeant major in Guam that’s interacting with governors, high-level people and congressional delegations that come through.”
Woodley said he witnessed that effort firsthand while serving on Task Force Talon.
“The average THAAD battery, and the average air defense battery, is about 1 percent officers, maybe 2 percent,” Woodley said. “So, you’re asking a small group of officers to put out information, and the larger group to take that information and execute. With THAAD being a new weapons system, you don’t have many people who are trained to do it, so you’re asking even more of the young Soldiers. These guys are doing a phenomenal job. They are doing more than just their daily job; they are also taking on the responsibility of winning hearts and minds in Guam because they are the largest active-duty Army force on Guam. So, they are doing that by going out and establishing Partners in Education with local elementary schools. They are integrating into Junior ROTC programs for future soldiers who may want to join the Army. Our NCOs are doing a huge amount of work that you would normally see at the officer level.”
The dedication of the NCOs in Guam permeates every aspect of being a good Soldier, Woodley said. As an example, he talked about their efforts on Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP).
“We decided we didn’t want to just give lip service about SHARP,” Woodley said. “We wanted to see if we could come up with some kind of program to get everybody learning about SHARP. We came up with the SHARP Soldier and NCO of the Quarter. We had 10 Soldiers in the first board we conducted, so you had 10 Soldiers out there studying. They were asking each other questions about SHARP and learning more about SHARP. It worked so well we’ve continued it, and the 94th command has adopted it, as well.”
As the Army rebalances to the Pacific, the NCOs of the 94th AAMDC are making sure their skills and weapons fit securely into the mission. The various services’ strengths complement each other, leading to a powerhouse of weapons systems in the Pacific, Dodson said. It’s a deterrent to our enemies, plus a challenging, exciting experience for Soldiers.
“Not too many people can say they get to work with the other sister services and our allies and do their mission every day. Not too many can do that,” Dodson said.
Not many can, but the NCOs of the 94th AAMDC are everyday.
When the 3rd Infantry Division reached the shores of France on Aug. 15, 1944, the Rock of the Marne had already seen several examples of gallantry from its Soldiers that were worthy of the nation’s highest honor. It took only two days to witness another.
Staff Sgt. Stanley Bender stood tall as a barrage of German gunfire barreled toward him before helping his unit gain a crucial position near La Londe, France. Bender was part of E Company, 7th Infantry, 3rd Infantry Division. The unit made landfall in southern France after spending the previous 21 months engaged in battles throughout North Africa and Sicily as part of the 3rd ID’s Operation Torch. The men of the 3rd ID would eventually be awarded 15 Medals of Honor for their actions in Italy. Bender would join their ranks when he leapt into action after one of the company’s tanks was disabled.
The division was beginning its push north through France to close the gap on German forces who were scurrying east in a hasty retreat from Allied forces, which had landed two months earlier at Normandy. Bender’s unit encountered heavy German resistance near the town of La Londe. When a volley of machine-gun fire halted an American tank, the company was pinned down. Bender scrambled to the top of the disabled tank and scanned the horizon to find the source of gunfire. He stood bravely in full view of the enemy while a steady stream of bullets careened off the turret below him for more than two minutes, according to his Medal of Honor citation. He eventually saw muzzle flashes flaring from a knoll 200 yards away. From there, Bender leapt off the tank and into history.
According to the citation, Bender ordered two squads to cover him as he took a group of Soldiers through an irrigation ditch toward the enemy gunfire. For the first 50 yards of their advance, they were sprayed with intense fire, resulting in four Soldiers being wounded. Bender ended up alone ahead of the squad and stood his ground while the Germans hurled grenades into the ditch. Once the squad reached his position, Bender set out for the German stronghold. He wound his way to the rear of the enemy emplacement, then started marching toward it — alone. With no cover fire laid down for him, Bender traversed 40 yards as the occasional German and friendly fire whizzed past him. He reached the first machine gun and eliminated it with a short burst.
That caught the attention of another two-man machine-gun crew, which turned the weapon around and trained it on him. But Bender was unfazed. He walked calmly through the hail of fire and nullified the threat before signaling his men to rush the remaining rifle pits. Bender headed back to his squad’s position, killing another German rifleman along the way, and together they charged the remaining eight German soldiers in the machinegun nest. The attack galvanized the rest of the assault company, with Soldiers spring from their positions shouting. The company eventually overpowered an enemy roadblock, knocked out two anti-tank guns, killed 37 Germans and captured 26 others.
The attack also resulted in the capture of three bridges over the Maravenne River and command of key terrain in southern France. Bender’s actions were in keeping with the “conspicuous gallantry and the intrepidity at risk of life above and beyond the call of duty,” worthy of the nation’s highest honor. He was awarded the Medal of Honor on Feb. 1, 1945.
After his service, Bender had two bridges named in his honor on the West Virginia Turnpike, one in 1954 and the other in 1987. In addition to his Medal of Honor, Bender, who joined the Army in December 1939, was awarded the French Croix de Guerre, as well as the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star and seven battle stars. He died June 22, 1994, at age 84 in Oak Hill, W.Va. He was buried in High Lawn Memorial Park in Oak Hill.
The Army is looking for Soldiers who want to sign on as part of the cyber branch.
An Army Military Personnel, or MILPER, message published in June notified Soldiers of the opportunity to reclassify into the 17C military occupational specialty, which is called cyber operations specialist. Soldiers have until Aug. 31 to submit their packet for the first school date. Those who miss it will have to wait until the next course announcement.
“It’s on the individual,” said Master Sgt. Mike Perry, Cyber Protection Brigade career counselor on Fort Gordon, Georgia. “I always believed that if you want to get something, you’ll motivate yourself to get it.”
Highly-motivated individuals are precisely what the cyber branch is seeking, he said.
The primary duty of a cyber-operations specialist is to “provide offensive and defensive cyberspace operations in support of the full range of military operations by enabling actions and generating effects across all domains.”
Despite it being a field that might seem most suitable for those with an intelligence or technical background, the 17C MOS is open to all Soldiers in ranks E-1 through E-8, per MILPER message 15-164.
Training for the new MOS lasts 12 months, and is conducted in two phases. The first phase happens at the Cyber Center of Excellence on Fort Gordon, Georgia. The second phase happens in Pensacola, Florida, where Soldiers will attend the Joint Cyber Analysis Course.
Newly-minted 17C MOS Soldiers will be assigned to one of its seven functional areas. Though individuals are designated one functional area, there will be ample opportunities to cross-train in the other associated skill areas.
“With a lot of other MOSs, you learn your specific job, and that’s it,” said Sgt. Maj. Michael D. Redmon, Fort Gordon command career counselor. “These Soldiers get an opportunity to sit next to one another and learn from each other constantly.”
There is also unmatched potential for additional training, schools, and professional growth development. The 17C course alone is enough reason for some Soldiers to consider changing fields. Perry said that the certification Soldiers will get by having attended the course is significant.
Acceptance into the course will be determined by the strength of the Soldier’s application packet. It’s a packet that requires careful planning, Sgt. Sandra Richter said.
“I wouldn’t say it was necessarily difficult, but it’s a very open-ended packet,” said Richter, an intelligence analyst with the Cyber Protection Brigade.
“It’s almost kind of like an ego check,” Perry said. “You’re writing about yourself, so it’s a self-assessment.”
It took Richter about two months to complete her packet because she had to wait for documents such as high school transcripts. Other documents took time to receive but were not required.
“I personally waited on a letter of recommendation, and that’s not something that was asked for, but I thought it was something that would really help me out,” Richter said. “I knew I had to make myself stand out.”
Since being assigned to a cyber unit, Richter’s interest in cyber has grown. She said she has gotten a closer look at what she described as the “more technical side” of things, and wants to immerse herself in it instead of watching from afar.
“As an analyst, a lot of times we have to pull back and look at the ‘big picture,'” she said. “I want to get into the details, and I think reclassifying to this new branch will give me that opportunity.”
Richter feels confident she has a good chance at being accepted for the course. She credits her chain of command for providing what was needed to give her that confidence.
“The brigade has supported me every step of the way,” Richter said. “My leadership scheduled an Army Psychological Fitness Test [APFT] for me and helped me gather items I needed for the packet.”
Applicants will be notified of their acceptance or denial in October. Perry said the best advice he can give to Soldiers, who miss this round’s deadline would be to have their packet prepared well in advance of the next round, which is yet to be determined.
“Most everything can be done well ahead of time, except for things that must be within a certain time window, such as the APFT,” Perry said.
The first training date is projected for the second quarter of 2016. Soldiers should talk with their career counselors and visit the cyber school’s website for more information and tips on how to complete the packet.
Their boots sank into the beach-like sand and sweat dripped down their necks as they rucked under the sweltering sun. With throbbing heads and parched throats, “I’m black on water,” was the phrase nobody wanted to hear.
The 50 NCOs training in the desert heat were not in Iraq or Afghanistan. They were testing their limits during the pilot of the new Desert Warrior course from July 1-23 at Fort Bliss, Texas.
The new three-week course spearheaded by the 1st Armored Division’s Iron Training Detachment is taught by NCO instructors and open to small unit leaders – squad leaders, team leaders and junior enlisted who are in team-leader positions. The course focuses on survival skills and small-unit tactics in a desert environment, and though it takes inspiration from the Jungle Warfare course in Hawaii, the Northern Warfare Training Center in Alaska and the Army Reconnaissance course in Georgia, it is the only one of its kind within the Army. Desert combat skills have not been taught in an Army school since 1995, the last year Ranger School included a desert phase. For now, the course at Fort Bliss is only for Soldiers on the installation, but the cadre hope it will be adopted Armywide within the next few years.
The course creators had two months to prepare for the pilot, and the cadre were made aware of their new assignment merely three weeks before the students arrived. Even with the short notice, however, both students and instructors considered the course a success.
“I was excited about coming here,” said Sgt. 1st Class Dionicio Zarrabal, the NCO in charge of the course. “I’ve never done anything like this. I’ve been an instructor in the past, but it was already put together. So, this was completely different. I was very much out of my comfort zone, because I was creating something from nothing.”
The hiccups encountered during the first course taught the cadre what they need to improve for the next cycle, Zarrabal said.
“Who knows where this course is going to go? We are still adjusting a lot of things, and there are a lot of lessons learned from this cycle, but overall it has the potential to be much bigger. Wherever it goes, at least we can say we were a part of it.”
Three phases bring on the heat
The course was divided into three parts. During the first week, students found themselves in a classroom setting. Lessons covered combat tracking, counter improvised explosive device tactics, advanced land navigation and other survival skills. They evaluated troop-leading procedures, formations and battle drills, in addition to studying the history of desert warfare and how characteristics of desert environments around the world affect Soldier operations, Zarrabal said.
They also studied the desert wildlife they may encounter, including rattlesnakes, cobras, vipers, scorpions, tarantulas, coyotes, camels, big cats and antelope. A civilian from the West Texas Poison Center even brought out a “petting zoo” of the many snakes and other animals native to the Chihuahuan desert to give the students an idea of what was waiting for them in the field.
During week two, the students spent five days in the desert and mountainous terrain spanning West Texas and southern New Mexico. The students were divided into four squads, and each was dropped by helicopter into different landing zones, accompanied by an instructor. They were required to determine their location by analyzing the maps and surrounding terrain, then conduct reconnaissance missions and react to ambushes as they maneuvered to a specified terrain feature.
“A lot of times when you go to do land navigation, you are given a compass, a protractor and a map. You are given a score card and are told to plot your points – walk from point 1 to point 2 and so on,” Zarrabal said. “It’s not realistic. Not at all. In a deployed environment, you would pinpoint where you are on the map, and from there you would move to a terrain feature if you were on foot.”
At first, the students were asked to maneuver roughly 200 meters at a time. By the end of the week, they were traveling 8 or 9 kilometers per day. They could request a resupply each day and meet at a link-up spot every 12 hours or so to collect water, food and other items.
While in the field with their cadre, each squad practiced combat tracking and learned how to use the environment to their advantage.
“Without the vegetation, it is much harder to cover and conceal yourself,” Zarrabal said. “Whether it is a slope, a mountain, you have to minimize your movement and get creative with using the terrain to your benefit.”
Rucking long distances with a limited water supply was the biggest challenge of the course for many of the students, as most came from mechanized units.
“It’s been awhile since I’ve been in the mountains and dismounted,” said Sgt. Cody Vance of A Troop, 1st Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division. “So that kind of took me by surprise – the actual up and down that we had to do, and then having to really learn how to conserve my water while we were out there until we could get the resupply.”
The third week was dedicated to live-fire training. Students began with a “familiarization fire,” Zarrabal explained. Each student fired all available weapon systems.
“Unfortunately, some of these students haven’t fired some of the different weapon systems in months or years,” Zarrabal said. “So prior to going into live fire, we want to make sure that they get familiar with the weapon systems again before we move on.”
In the next step, students moved through Situational Training Exercise lanes, reacting to targets they encountered. Because of safety requirements, targets could not be moved once they were set. This took away the element of surprise, but Zarrabal and the other cadre still considered the live-fire training a vital part of the course.
“Unfortunately, once the students run through a lane the first time, they know where all of the targets are going to be. But we included this portion of the course because it is important to know how to maneuver when you actually have live bullets going downrange.”
In each phase, the cadre helped the students hone their basic skills as well as their leadership skills, said Staff Sgt. Michael Oshiro, an instructor for the course. Both cadre and students said the course is especially valuable for young NCOs and those new to team leading positions.
“I think this course is important, because it refreshes the basics and gives them something to take back to their units and instruct their Soldiers, making us more proficient in our basic tasks,” Oshiro said.
Plans for desert survival
When students were asked how the course could be improved, everyone said they had hoped for more lessons on desert survival.
With such a short time for preparation and instructor training, many lessons such as how to find water and how to trap and safely cook food were left out of the curriculum. But there are plans to include those survival skills in future cycles of the course, Zarrabal said.
Oshiro will be the primary instructor for the desert survival portion. During the second week of the pilot, he taught his squad how to eat the nopal and prickly-pear parts of the cactus, as well as to cut the plant open at the stalk to find water. Oshiro’s skills are limited, though, and he said he hopes to attend a level C Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) course – an Air Force program extended during the Vietnam War to the Army, Navy and Marine Corps. The skills he would acquire there would help him add to the curriculum and train the cadre.
“In the September course, I’m hoping to include more on snare traps, plant life, making fire and shelter, as well as a medical portion,” Oshiro said. “Those lessons will be incorporated into the curriculum to benefit all of the students – not just my squad.”
Because of disease concerns, students in the next cycle of the course will not be expected to eat any wild animals, Oshiro said, but there are plenty out there to practice trapping. Cadre reported seeing rattlesnakes, rabbits, scorpions and even an Oryx.
Staff Sgt. Cory Ragin, an instructor for the course, said he was completely surprised by how many wild animals he and his squad encountered.
“I came about three steps from a rattlesnake,” Ragin said. “He gave me one quick rattle and pulled his head back in strike position. I turned around and ran the other direction until I remembered the students were watching me and I regained my composure. And the rabbits… I told my wife one of these rabbits may drag you away and eat you. They are so huge. A lot of people think of the desert as being empty and lifeless, but there is a lot of life out there.”
The addition of desert survival content is just one of the many improvements planned for the course. The instructors are undergoing extensive training, so that all are experts on the material being taught. The schedule will be more streamlined, and Zarrabal said they are considering adding reconnaissance, ambush, combat-tracking and desert-survival lanes to the tasks required of the students during week two.
“As instructors, we are constantly thinking of what we can do to improve for the next cycle,” Ragin said. “What do we need to do so that somebody from Fort Bragg, N.C., will want to come to Fort Bliss for four weeks to get that training? What do we have to do for that to happen? We are constantly thinking about that.”
One cycle of the course will be offered each quarter, with the next set to begin Sept. 7. That gives the cadre about two and a half months to prepare. Zarrabal said he is confident it is more than enough time to make significant improvements before the new students arrive, as it is more time than they had to create the course.
“Having a limited time for preparation is not necessarily a bad thing,” Zarrabal said. “Even if the course doesn’t go as planned, at least we have all of those lessons learned, and we can apply them almost immediately. Had they given us six or seven months to prepare and it still wasn’t what they wanted, that time was wasted.
“I have no doubt that this course is going to get better. Once we get more feedback and get more efficient with how we present the material, I actually think this course is going to be really, really good.”
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