FORT POLK, La. –
Nearly 150 Soldiers assigned to the Virginia National Guard’s Staunton-based 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team traveled to Fort Polk, Louisiana, from Feb. 11 to March 1, 2016, to provide support to the Joint Readiness Training Center rotation 16-04.
Soldiers assigned to the Hanover-based Battery A, 1st Battalion, 111th Field Artillery Regiment and from the Fredericksburg-based Company A, 116th Brigade Special Troops Battalion served as part of the opposing force for the rotation, providing a live enemy for the Soldiers of the Alaska-based 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division who were training at JRTC.
Meanwhile, 18 Soldiers assigned to the Charlottesville-based Company C, 429th Brigade Support Battalion, gained valuable experience by providing medical support to Soldiers of the various units participating in the rotation.
“The opportunities to have units deploy to Fort Polk and participate in JRTC rotations, both OPFOR and BLUEFOR, enables our leaders to sustain a high level of training readiness while enhancing mission command in challenging conditions on unfamiliar terrain,” said Col. William J. Coffin, commander of the 116th IBCT, who visited the Soldiers at Fort Polk. “During my visit, I saw young Soldiers and junior leaders taking the initiative to aggressively present a tough, realistic opposing force for the rotational unit. Our commanders on the ground integrated well with the JRTC OPFOR and were recognized by the OPFOR commander, Geronimo-6, for their ability to task organize into small tactical teams and to quickly adjust missions in the dynamic operational environment.”
For the combat engineers, the training was valuable, in part, because it provided an opportunity to go up against an enemy, according to 1st Sgt. Lewis E. Shadle.
“It’s been great because we’ve been training up for this and now we get to go force on force, which is something we don’t normally get to do,” he said. “Even though we’re OPFOR, it doesn’t change how we operate. We’re operating the same way we would as a conventional force. We’re just doing it in an OPFOR uniform.”
“My guys are actually setting up minefields and digging anti-tank ditches,” said Capt. William Pearson, commander of Company A. “Meanwhile the equipment operators are using some equipment we don’t have back home.”
In addition, Soldiers revisited some of their basic Soldier and engineer skills.
“Some of the basic skills have kind of been lost over the years- map reading skills, plotting your points, getting an azimuth, getting a pace count,” Shadle said. “This is back to the basics of what a combat engineer is.”
“They’ve done fantastic and they’ve learned a lot,” Pearson said.
Meanwhile the Soldiers of Battery A were honing their field craft and tactical competencies. They were often displacing sections, while providing continuous fire support to the infantry battalion.
“We owned the night,” said Capt. Matthew Payne, commander of Battery A. “we operated in two separate platoons, without breaks in support to Task Force Geronimo.”
The battery averaged 60 fire missions a day, mostly between the hours of 4 p.m. and 8 a.m, according to Payne. They conducted the majority of their operations at night, driving hundreds of miles using only night vision goggles.
“We operated solely in a decentralized fashion, occupying firing points as sections and only at night while avoiding detection by BLUEFOR ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] and SOF [Special Operations forces],” he said.
“Being on the other side and seeing how the OPFOR operates is good training,” said Spc. Sean Tompkins, assigned to Battery A. “We’re experiencing what they do as well as see what is happening on the other side.”
The outstanding showing by Battery A wasn’t just due to his Soldiers’ performance but also due to the performance of Soldiers from the Portsmouth-based 2nd Battalion, 183rd Cavalry and vehicle maintainers assigned to the Norfolk-based Company G, 429th Brigade Support Battalion, who were attached to Battery A, according to Payne.
“Without 13Fs initiating Calls For Fire and maintainers recovering our mired equipment, A Battery would not be so fortunate to rain steel on the enemy,” he said. “Our success was due to the combined arms integration and relationships established within the battery and supported infantry battalion and for that I am thankful.”
While Soldiers of those two units were providing support to the opposing force, the 18 Soldiers of Charlie Med were supporting the entire rotation with medical care.
“There are potentially 4,000 patients here and we see 25-30 a day,” said Capt. Thomas Cook, executive officer of C Company, who was the commander on the ground. “We’ve seen active duty, reservists and even international soldiers. Anyone involved in the exercise itself is supposed to come here.”
In addition to assisting the doctors and physician assistants, the medics treated and assessed patients, and determined if they need to be returned to duty, put on quarters or were in need of higher echelon care. They also provided patient transport for their appointments and kept up with medications.
“It’s a different training than we would normally get in the field,” said Sgt. Thomas Best. “It’s great to get clinical training and being able to assess patients with so many instruments we don’t normally get to use.”
Cook echoed those sentiments, saying they received valuable training on systems and equipment they wouldn’t be exposed to in a typical setting.
“We’re getting a good overall training as far as what a medic is capable of and what a medic can do for the Army all in one place,” Best said.
This wasn’t the first time troops of the 116th traveled to Fort Polk and it won’t be the last. In November more than 95 Soldiers assigned to Battery B and Company G supported JRTC rotation 16-02 and the number of Stonewall Brigade Soldiers training at JRTC is expected to increase in the coming years, according to Coffin.
“As the BCT moves into 2017 and 2018, JRTC should provide a great venue for individual leaders to hone their skills as guest OC/Ts [observe controller/trainers],” Coffin explained. “We plan on maximizing these opportunities with the eye on preparing the BCT for its planned rotation to JRTC in 2020.”