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Four Humvees belonging to B Battery, 2nd Battalion, 8th Field Artillery Regiment, snaked their way through a Baghdad market Aug. 26 during a routine presence patrol. The Soldiers were especially vigilant that hot summer afternoon, because intelligence summaries passed down through battalion indicated increased enemy activity in the area.
“Contact right, contact right,” said Sgt. Shawn Yerby, third vehicle commander, over the platoon radio net, having spotted a rocket-propelled grenade team near a fruit stand.
Pfc. Christopher McCann, third vehicle gunner, wheeled his .50-caliber machine gun toward the market, quickly differentiating between several civilians and the anti-Iraqi Force two-man team firing several controlled bursts.
“Target neutralized, charlie-mike (continue mission),” Yerby calmly intoned into his radio handset.
Although realistic, the scene was not a real combat mission, but a training scenario played out in the Virtual Combat Convoy Trainer at Fort Wainwright’s Battle Command Training Center. The exercise was part of the 2-8th’s weeklong training at the BCTC to prepare their Soldiers for convoy operations.
A Soldier’s first stop during the training regimen is at the BCTC’s Humvee Egress Assistance Trainer, where he learns to exit a vehicle after it has rolled over. The HEAT apparatus is little more than an instrumented, armored Humvee chassis mounted in a hydraulically powered rotisserie that literally turns Soldiers’ lives upside down.
According to the U.S. Army Forces Command Web site, the HEAT was designed by FORSCOM in response to casualties suffered from vehicle rollovers and has become required training for Soldiers deploying overseas for contingency operations. The site said a HEAT-trained Soldier has a 250 percent greater chance of survival in the event of a rollover compared to an untrained Soldier.
“There are three basic (HEAT) battle drills,” said Alfonso McDade, BCTC virtual equipment manager. “One is to egress at 180 degrees, which is upside down. Then we have an egress in water, also at 180 degrees. (Last), we have 90 degrees on its side. That’s the most difficult portion of the egress, because you can only come up through the top side, and the people at the top have to realize that the people at the bottom have to come out first.”
Sgt. Codiriko White, A Battery, 2-8th’s certified HEAT operator, said he and the battalion’s other operators were required to take a block of instruction, pass written and practical exercises and operate the HEAT under BCTC staff supervision before being certified.
There are three HEAT kill switches that will cease rotation, he said, one located at the front of the vehicle for the operator, another at the rear for the second safety officer and a third in the Humvee cabin for testing Soldiers to press in case of an emergency.
During the Aug. 26 training, Soldiers entered the HEAT in groups of four and performed exit drills, often taking several minutes to catch their bearings before successfully exiting the Humvee.
“It’s actually harder than I expected,” said Sgt. Dontae Davis, A/2-8th. “But the instruction we had made it a little easier for us to get out of the vehicle.”
After successful completion of the HEAT, Soldiers graduate to the VCCT, where they have the opportunity to train as part of a four-vehicle convoy travelling through one of five meticulously recreated cities, Baghdad, Samarra, Kosovo, Tikrit or Kabul, according to manufacturer Raydon Corporation’s Web site.
“(The VCCT mission) is to provide realistic training in an atmosphere conducive to tactical convoy procedures,” said Bob Evans, Raydon training specialist. “Hopefully, the training enables the Soldiers to survive the initial contact better than seeing it for the first time there (in combat) as opposed to here in the trainer.”
Training Soldiers enter a 40-foot trailer, sit in a virtual Humvee, don virtual reality glasses and operate virtual rifles and machineguns. The driver’s position has the Humvee steering wheel, pedals and control surfaces. The track commander communicates with his platoon and company headquarters using a military specification radio and battle tracks with a virtualized Force XXI Battle Command, Brigade-and-Below computer screen.
Evans loaded the scenario into the computer — facilitating tough, realistic training for a mounted platoon. He said he typically tailors the missions in a crawl, walk, run fashion to ramp up the difficulty as the unit gains confidence.
“Communications is a big part of this thing,” Evans said. “We want them to work as a team before we can really build them into an effective team.”
Staff Sgt. Andrew Hollamen, a B/2-8th platoon sergeant, led his platoon through several harrowing missions in the virtual streets of Baghdad.
“The training is allowing for us to take our platoon in a four-stack vehicle setup, enabling us to do a combat patrol in the neighborhoods and surrounding areas of Baghdad,” Hollamen said. “It allows us to train our Soldiers in each position of that vehicle, from being a vehicle commander to being the lead vehicle driver providing navigation. It also allows our gunners to see what they need to do to engage their targets and to make a PID (positive identification) of their targets.”
Lane Hansen, BCTC operations officer, said although the VCCT cannot replace a live-fire exercise, the trainer provides unit commanders with an opportunity to plan convoy training with no logistical requirements and with maximum flexibility in crafting a realistic scenario.
“The VCCT is a virtual trainer where risk is low, and you can go through your procedures, you can check your SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures), see what worked and what didn’t work and run it until you get it right.”
Hansen said the HEAT and VCCT training combine to prepare Soldiers for the hazards and rigors of combat.
“It’s proven to save lives,” he said.