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Arctic Wolves ride wave of change at NTC
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As an axiom, “shoot, move and communicate” captures the essence of Army operations and the always-changing and evolving nature of war. If there was ever a conflict defined by a refusal to stay static, it would be Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The 2003 invasion was aimed at accomplishing a regime change. Less than a year later, coalition forces battled a massive insurgency. Nation building has been constant, and now the U.S. military’s main focus is establishing relationships and training the Iraqi army and police to take over security of their nation.
The 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, will join this latest phase of OIF in a few months.
“One of the most dramatic challenges for us as an Army, for officers and NCOs who were in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom in the beginning … that was a completely different environment, a different war,” said Lt. Col. Jim DeMoss, commander of 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment. “Those Soldiers and their experiences, their ways of dealing with things and the Iraqi people, were radically different than they are now. We’re now in a much different environment.”
In the heart of the Mojave Desert, The National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., has adapted about as often as the 5-year-old Iraqi conflict. Four years ago, what was a dusty intersection five miles from the garrison area is now the four-street mock village of Medina Wasl, which is filled with Iraqi-Americans and other role players. Forward operating bases are positioned far beyond the village as they would be in an Iraq province. Mock villages lay outside the FOBs, housing hostile and friendly role players.
As the OIF mission changes, so do the preparatory missions waged at NTC and the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La., where the 1-25th, in its previous incarnation as the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, trained in May 2005. For veterans of that trip and the current NTC mission, the training has taken a quantum leap.
“The training value here is 100 percent different. At that time, JRTC was not set up well for a Stryker unit to train there,” said Sgt. 1st Class Ronnie Taylor, B Company, 1st Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment. “Here you’ve got the wide-open desert, all these little mock cities, all the IA (Iraqi Army). This is very realistic.”
The more than 100-degree heat and the operational tempo add additional realism. A squad or a platoon will be up past 2 a.m. on a live-fire mission, get back to the FOB, do the after action review, take care of their Stryker vehicle, grab some chow, and find a cot, all after being warned their next operation will begin after lunch. Then they may get the call to action as early as 8 a.m.
“We’re getting high-quality, challenging training here at NTC,” said Lt. Col. Michael Smith, 1-25th SBCT deputy commanding officer. “There are great role players, excellent trainers here, and we’re getting teaching and mentoring from the observer controllers. We’ve got a realistic environment as far as the heat, the sand, and they’ve done a great job replicating the villages.”
It is in those villages where the Stryker Soldiers rally for training operations. After Soldiers dismount their Strykers in Medina Wasl, role playing villagers flock to them. Personal interaction as mock roadside bombs explode and casualties drop ratchet up tension and confusion. Spinning through a Soldier’s mind are a hundred thoughts: Is that guy friend or foe? Where is the medic? Is that a wire running into that box over there? I can’t see around that traffic jam….
“They’ve got a realistic setup; I like it a lot. They’ve got live animals, goats and stuff, so it’s been good training,” said Spc. Nicholas Blust, B/1-24th, who was deployed to Iraq with the 172nd. “We’ve got a bunch of new guys who are pretty motivated to go over there and do their job. I’m pretty confident; we’ve got some pretty good leadership.”
“The situational training exercise lanes we are going through here are phenomenal,” said Lt. Col. Chris Wolney, executive officer, 1-25th SBCT. “The opportunities our Soldiers have here in the villages interacting with local nationals along with the heat are just topnotch.”
For all its realism, NTC trainers plant deliberate potholes. Scenarios evolve as missions play out, ensuring a certain level of failure. The philosophy is better fake blood at NTC than real blood in Iraq.
“The Soldiers are improving every day, which is just what you want here,” DeMoss said. “That is the phrase we use, ‘get better every day.’ They are exposed to those choices. Sometimes we make less than perfect choices, but this is exactly the place to make those mistakes. This is where we want to learn.”
Learning how to handle a conflict that defies definition is why the 1-25th SBCT spent nearly a month at NTC. As the Arctic Wolves depart the training area this week, their leaders hope the lessons learned here will penetrate the minds of the 4,000 Soldiers like the desert sun and sand did the past four weeks.