TRAINING FOR WAR
Boots on the ground.
When military men are talking, you hear that phrase a lot. It's part of their long, rich, sometimes profane and always colorful lexicon. It denotes the presence of uniformed people in a specific place.
Boots on the ground,
as in Â—
"From the time the last pair of boots are on the ground in Kuwait, the unit will be gone 12 months."
The boots in this case belong to the men and women of the 116th Brigade Combat Team, currently training at Fort Bliss, Texas, for a tour in northern Iraq. Kuwait is the point of entry.
They've already been gone from home 2 1/2 months. When they finish at Fort Bliss, they face more training Â— their toughest Â— at Fort Polk, the Joint Readiness Training Center in Louisiana.
For most, that will be followed by two or three weeks' leave.
Then, for a year, it's war, pure and simple.
Col. Barry Nightingale, briefing a "Boss Lift" contingent visiting from Oregon and Idaho this week, didn't sugarcoat what's coming up.
"They're going into a very tough environment. From the day they hit the ground to the day they come home, they're at war," Nightingale said.
A little later he would add, "We haven't sent a team yet that's brought everybody back."
The Boss Lift, courtesy of the Employer Support for the Guard and Reserve program, gave employers of mobilized National Guard soldiers an inside look at training and day-to-day living at the Dona Ana complex in New Mexico and Forward Operating Base McGregor at Fort Bliss.
Those employers, accompanied by media representatives from throughout the region, flew to Fort Bliss on a pair of C-130 cargo planes.
The hectic, two-day tour began with Nightingale's briefing at Biggs Airfield. The colonel gave information on the make-up of the 116th BCT, and the nature of its mission.
Basically, he said, the team consists of four line battalions from Idaho, Pennsylvania and Oregon, including the 3/116th from Ontario, Baker City, La Grande, Pendleton, Hermiston and The Dalles.
G Troop, 82nd Cavalry, from Redmond, is providing major combat support. Also serving in a support role is a recon battalion from Montana, and an Engineer Task Force from Boise.
And that's not all.
"Twenty-five states have contributed to the 116th BCT," Nightingale said. He added that men and women from active and reserve components throughout the nation are arriving daily.
A large number of the Idaho, Oregon and Montana National Guard soldiers trained previously with Abrams tanks. But for them,
the future isn't what it used to
When they go overseas, they'll take just 15 tanks with them, Nightingale said.
"This is a mission that requires lighter, urban forces," he commented. "The soldiers will mainly be using the up-armored M-1114 Humvee. It's a very durable vehicle, and we're able to get into urban areas with it."
Training in the inhospitable desert around Fort Bliss takes place at several locations, including FOB McGregor in Texas and the Dona Ana complex in nearby New Mexico.
At McGregor, the emphasis is on the day-to-day activities in a Forward Operating Base, or FOB Â— the soldiers say it Fob, as in watch fob. Those activities include patrols, and the establishment and maintenance of base security. Guard duty is a constant.
At Dona Ana, things are more intense. There, the training is action-packed, made to reflect high-pressure, hostile situations that will be encountered in Iraq.
Following Monday's briefing, the Boss Lift participants saw some of it close up, as medics were put through a scenario involving a mess hall hit by rocket fire.
Pandemonium ruled inside the darkened building. Trainers popped smoke, making already poor visibility worse. Others fired bursts of blank rounds from their rifles. People screamed and yelled.
A high-tech training mannequin known as Sim Man was laid out in one corner. Sim Man actually talks, and he was complaining that he couldn't breathe.
A Pennsylvania medic named John Sexton found his way to the casualty. In near-darkness, he determined that Sim Man had been shot in the chest and
was suffering from a tension pneumothorax.
Sexton whipped out a needle, tore off its wrapper and inserted it between a couple of Sim Man's ribs, relieving the pressure. Sim Man said he felt better.
The next day, the Boss Lift participants got to play an interactive part in one of the most important training exercises offered at Bliss: convoy operations, "convoy ops" for short.
The more than 40 civilians were loaded into two open trucks and transported through the desert.
Humvees armed with .50-caliber machine guns and 5.56- mm Squad Automatic Weapons (SAWs) escorted them. Manning the guns were soldiers from the 116th Engineer Task Force.
Ahead, opposing forces with small arms waited in ambush. They also laid an improvised explosive device Â— the favored weapon of the enemy in Iraq Â— along the road.
Even in training, the soldiers escorting the convoy had their game faces on. Looking mean is part of the drill.
"They say if you look tough, people don't mess with you so much. If you're facing out with your weapons, it's probably going to be a deterrent," said Capt. John Hoxsey, a Boise soldier riding with the civilians.
A couple of blank-round firefights played themselves out in the desert, and drivers practiced evasive maneuvers.
Later, the session was critiqued in an after-action review. Boss Lift looked on.
Convoy ops training is conducted in phases over three days, culminating in a live-fire exercise where soldiers shoot real bullets at pop-up targets in the sage.
Though carefully controlled, live fire helps give soldiers a better feel for battlefield conditions. As Nightingale pointed out earlier, realistic training is essential.
"We don't want them kinda-sorta trained. Kinda-sorta won't bring them home," he said.
In mid-September, temperatures at Bliss and Dona Ana have cooled. Monday and Tuesday, soldiers enjoyed 95-degree weather.
Every man and woman wears Â— packs around may be a better term Â— the standard battle uniform, everywhere they go out-of-doors. They will do so every day of their tour.
The uniform includes desert camouflage blouse, pants and boots; Kevlar helmet; armored vest; water in either Camelbacks or canteens; assault rifle and magazines; and, depending on orders, a gas mask.
For most soldiers, wearing the burdensome uniform in searing desert heat gets easier as time goes on. Hard physical training, beginning and ending in the dark, day after day, has made them strong.
But it's a hardship still, just as living in cramped hooches far, far away from home is a hardship.
For soldiers in this and any other age, hardships abound.
At Dona Ana, there are 10 showerheads for several hundred soldiers. Sometimes soldiers bathe eight or 10 to a showerhead. (Females, a decided minority, get their own time and place to shower.)
Special occasions aren't so special in the field, and if you don't believe that, ask Hoxsey. He turned 35 on Sept. 13, and barely thought about it. He didn't have the time.
There are many other hardships, maybe too many to enumerate in a single newspaper article. Soldiers complain about them as they always do, in any army at any time Â— but they don't complain too long or loud.
Officers say the men and women of the 116th bear their hardships with grace.
"These are some great guys, and I'm honored to be with them. They're good soldiers, and they're ready to do their jobs," said
Capt. Terry Chinen, G Troop commander.
Nightingale stated it another way: "I've been very impressed with the focus and the leadership I see here."
And life at Fort Bliss isn't all bad. The chow is as good as it gets in the Army. Soldiers eat breakfast and dinner in big, air-conditioned mess halls. For lunch they get a Meal Ready to Eat, nourishing if not always tasty.
The troops get little free time, only an occasional day off to go to town. They're allowed to keep CD and DVD players and the like. Listening and watching is a favorite activity when things get slow.
They stay in touch with their families by phone, by e-mail and by the U.S. mail. And they've got the cherished thought of leave in their minds.
They look forward desperately to reunions with loved ones when leave comes up, and at present, nearly all of them are scrambling to make travel arrangements.
The soldiers accept it all, good and bad. They may not all want to be at Fort Bliss, looking at a tour in Iraq, but they're doing what they see as their duty.
Sgt Bryan Polley, Baker City, put it this way: "Maybe personally I'd rather be doing something else, but when I think about our reasons Â— fighting for the freedom of the Iraqi people Â— I can justify it."
Yet sometimes, the justification for serving has less to do with politics and more to do with friendship.
Staff Sgt. Duane Amundson, also of Baker City, is 42 years old. He has been in the Oregon National Guard 23 years.
He said he simply couldn't walk away and let younger, less-experienced soldiers fend for themselves.
"Before this came up, I was thinking about retiring. But I decided I needed to be here for the younger guys," he said.
He paused and thought for a moment, then added, "After this is over, I am retiring. I wouldn't want to do this four or five times in a row."
So for now, beyond hardships and small creature comforts, what the men and women of the 116th BCT have is each other.
It's not like having a wife or a husband or kids or a mother and father. But in times like these, it counts for a lot.
Sgt. Cain Cooper, a Hermiston soldier serving in G Troop, said it best: "You tell the folks back home don't worry. I'm doing good, and I got my buddies to watch my back."
Note: The Observer's participation in the Boss Lift to Fort Bliss was made possible by Jack Johnson, chairman of Area 6, Oregon Committee, Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve.