‘Yesterday it was 105 degrees here. Find a bottle buddy and each of you make sure the other stays hydrated. That’s the way the army does it, and that’s the way you’re going to do it. Hooah!”
BOSS LIFT PARTICIPANT: Eastern Oregon University President Bob Davies laughs at a remark made by a fellow Boss Lift employer at the Orchard National Guard Training Area near Boise. The annual Boss Lift program, an activity of the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, brings employers to training sites to see how National Guard and Reserve troops train when they have to be away from work. Behind him is a portable control center for unmanned aerial reconnaissance vehicles. Photo/RODGER NICHOLS
“Hooah!” we reply, in approved Army fashion. It’s not yet 100 degrees in the desert near Boise, but it feels as if that’s just a matter of time. It’s July 23, and 44 of us are standing in our civvies, paying close attention to an Army National Guard captain.
That morning we had arrived at Gowen Air National Guard base, next to the Boise airport, as part of a program called Boss Lift.It’s an activity coordinated by ESGR, the Employer Support of Guard and Reserve. ESGR was set up in 1972, when the national draft ended, as a way to smooth relations and resolve conflicts between employers and the obligations of their employees to be away from their jobs at times of training.
By showing employers and community leaders how Guard and Reserve employees train during sessions away from work, Boss Lift Organizers aim at creating better understanding of the impact of service and the demands it makes on those employees.
The program brings employers — and a few reporters — into the complex for a day and a half in late July, to get an inside look at how Guard and Reserve troops are trained.
This session, there are 185 of us. Some were from the local Boise area, others were flown in from distant parts of Idaho and a group of us came from Oregon on a C-23 Sherpa transport.
Over the course of our carefully organized stay, we’ll have two rides in a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter, spend time in a $3 million Thunderbolt II flight simulator, clamber on an M1-A1 Abrams tank and have a chance to fire laser-rigged machine guns at a whole wall of computer-generated targets.
We’ll also get close to Apache attack helicopters, F-15 fighters, armored Humvees, Bradley Fighting Vehicles and other hardware.
To handle this many people at this many activities, we’re divided into four groups that move through the different rotations.
The Oregon group includes four from The Dalles: Dan Manciu, owner of Y-102 Radio, Mary Stocks of The Dalles Area Chamber of Commerce, Jim Wilbern, owner of Don’s Cleaners, and your reporter.
A contingent from La Grande includes Bob Davies, president of Eastern Oregon University, Jack Johnson, ESGR ARea Chair, Willard Rudd, a farmer from Cove, Steven Joseph, an attorney from La Grande, and Lee Marc, owner of the La Grande Dutch Brothers Coffee. Davies becomes my bottle buddy.
We’re in the desert because we’ve just been flown there in the Black Hawk. Our group got the first ride, and we feel lucky.
We’ve each been issued a pair of ear-plugs and a sick sack for the trip. Everybody needs the earplugs. No one, thankfully, needs the sick sack.
Four Black Hawks, each carrying 11 of us, ferry us out to Range Three. The 10-minute ride is exhilarating, a high point of our stay.
There’s a lot to see. The Orchard Training Area is about 138,000 acres, which includes a pop-up target range for tanks that is one of only six in the world.
On the ground we step down carefully and are warned about badger holes, which seem to punctuate the desert every few feet.
“They’re leg breakers,” says one of our soldiers. “Now you understand what it’s like walking around here at night trying to find the porta-potty. That’s what your employees are going through.”
Though tanks have plenty of room to move in this big stretch of desert, that’s not what we’re here to see. After pairing off as bottle buddies, we string out along a narrow airstrip to watch an unmanned aerial vehicle land itself.
What we see is an RQ-7 Shadow 200. It has a 14-foot wingspread and a 15,000-foot ceiling, but the resolution of the inboard camera is still classified.
It’s not armed. That’s reserved for the larger-sized Predator, which has a 48-foot wingspread and carries two Hellfire missiles.
As bottle buddies, Davies and I grab a fresh bottle of cold water from an ice chest. Davies, who has just started his job as Eastern president 24 days before, is pumped about his new post. He’s also enthusiastic about the Boss Lift.
“This is an important trip for Eastern,” he says. “We have a very long tradition of working with and supporting the Guard.”
Currently 11 students at EOU are in the National Guard.
“To be a part of this, to see what our students go through I think is very important,” Davies says.
There’s an historic connection as well. During World War II some army pilots were trained at Eastern’s La Grande campus.
A similar program was introduced in 1991. Unlike regular campus ROTC programs, it’s designed for people who have already spent time as enlisted soldiers, and have a sufficient amount of college work completed. It’s one of only two such programs in the U.S.
Back at Gowen Field, we enter our second rotation. Half of us crowd into the A-10 simulator room, while the other half heads outdoors to a static display of aircraft, including an Apache attack helicopter, an A-10, and an F-15.
The simulator room has a door with a keypad lock, and the simulator itself is one of two places where we are not allowed to take pictures. The other is the interior of an Abrams tank.
The simulator cockpit is surrounded by screens at various angles. When you sit in the cockpit, the screens completely fill you field of vision, and when you push the stick to one side, the horizon tilts to match as you speed by the terrain. It’s a convincing experience.
“It’s real enough that people watching can get airsick,” says the instructor.
As the simulator shows a view of Boise from the air, he tells us our targets are a series of radar domes that we are supposed to take out with the A-10’s 30mm cannon. For every hit, the computer generates a fireball on the target.
The trainer’s setup is designed to match as close to possible to the actual performance of real A-10s, which is built to provide close air support of ground forces.
If you overfly the targets, you’re soon far past and have to bring the craft around quickly in a tight turn. It’s a powerful experience to stand the plane on one wing and watch the horizon tilt at right angles.
So powerful, that when I line up for my strafing run, I only hit one target. For my single satisfying plume of flame, others are able to light up seven or eight.
Though the simulator is fun, it has a serious training purpose. As the instructor points out, there’s only one seat in the A-10.
“You’ve got to know what you’re doing when you do that first landing,” he says. “If you haven’t learned it by the time you take off, it’s too late, because you have to land it yourself.”
Following the evening retreat ceremony, we are assigned rooms in adjacent barracks. Ours is air-conditioned, which is welcome. The individual rooms contain a narrow bed, and a TV. Bathrooms and showers are down the hall.
At dinner, the main speaker is Gen. Craig R. McKinley, the first four star general to head the Guard.
He thanks employers and notes the change in training brought about by the events of 9/11. Guard and Reserve members are now giving up 21 days of summer.
He advises everyone to be prepared for what Gen. George Casey, the Army chief of staff, has called a decade or more of persistent conflict.
“General Casey believes we’ll have 10-15 brigade combat teams in a theater for the next decade or more,” McKinley says. “Admiral Mike Mullen, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, thinks this military will be fully employed in not only the war on terror overseas, but domestic defense and response to natural disasters for a long time.
“It means we have to stay strong, we have to persevere. We have to know that what we’ve been through the last eight years is going to continue and if we’re going to prevent our sons and daughters and grandsons and granddaughters from having to fight this thing, we have to get it done on our watch. This is our generation’s challenge.”
He suggests there ought to be tax breaks or other financial incentives to reward employers who continue to provide benefits to employees who have been deployed.
“There’s never been an all-volunteer force that’s been in conflict this long. Nobody knows when it’s going to end,” he says. “For the less than one percent of us who get to wear the cloth of our nation, and for those of you who support us, I’d just like to stand up here tonight and say thanks. We’re grateful you took time out of your busy schedules. I thank you all for being such good citizens.
The next day we take a tour of the base, a major training center for Oregon, Idaho and Montana. We see an apricot tree that was supposedly planted by movie star Jimmy Stewart, who trained B-17 pilots at Gowen for nine months in World War II.
Another static display allows us to climb on on a Marine M1-A1 Abrams tank. Then we learn why so much tank training is done on simulators. It costs $1,000 each time an Abrams fires a practice shell, and the 1,500 horsepower engine burns eight-tenths of a gallon per minute.
Our final activity takes us to target practice. It’s a big room with a raised platform facing a big blank wall. The platform has 10 nests of sandbags with real weapons sitting on them: M-4s and M-16s. The guns have converted to fire laser bursts instead of bullets, and each has an air hose attached to give us the kick of a real weapon.
A final muster and were are dispersed to head home.
That would be the end of the story, except for an ironic coda. The plane taking us home stops in Pendleton for refueling, and we have a few minutes to wander over to the National Guard hanger where crews are making major upgrades to a group of Chinook helicopters.
Dan Manciu, who piloted a Chinook for a year’s tour in Afghanistan in 2005-2006, looks up and spots the tail number 232.
“Hey, that’s my Chinook,” he says. Of the several he flew in Afghanistan, that was the airframe he flew the most.
When he learns that part of the retrofit is installing some armor on the previously-unarmored aircraft, he says it’s a long overdue upgrade.
“We could have used it over there,” he says.