Training for Afghanistan on America's High Ground
The bronze Kit Carson statue at Fort Carson's visitor gate points westward to the craggy horizon of the Rocky Mountains, Colorado's signature natural landmark and the post's greatest asset in training soldiers for the Afghanistan war.
At the base of the Rockies, Fort Carson, home of the 4th Infantry Division (Mechanized), sits at an elevation above 6,000 feet, and the nearby range juts steeply to top out at 14,115 feet with Pikes Peak, which towers over the high prairie and expanse of Colorado Springs, the fort's hometown.
It is an area that is nearly ideal for preparing and training to meet the rigors of Afghanistan, shaving weeks or months from the altitude acclimation that troops must endure when they arrive in Afghanistan and providing a physical training course for the climbs that likely await them in theater.
During the past year, the 4th Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team (BCT) - which relocated to Fort Carson from Fort Hood, Texas, last summer and is the Army's first heavy brigade scheduled for deployment to Afghanistan - has been maximizing the mountain training opportunity as it transformed itself into a light infantry unit in both ability and attitude to be part of the U.S. force buildup for Operation Enduring Freedom and operations that are planned as a major push against the Taliban.
The brigade parked its Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles and stepped up individual soldier preparation, concentrating on dismounted combat skills and physical training aimed at increasing endurance and patrolling on steep and uneven ground while carrying heavy loads.
"We've spent a lot of time walking up and down hills," said MAJ David Meyer, the 1st BCT's executive officer. He noted that general training goals and operational outlook shifted to reshape the brigade as a light infantry unit.
"In a heavy brigade, vehicles are an essential element, so the main challenge was to become primarily dismounted," he said. "On Fort Carson, we [have high enough elevation] to begin with, and we utilized the terrain around us, incorporating road marches and trail running into our training, toughening our feet, toughening our backs and understanding our loads - load planning for individuals, not tanks - and doing internal cross-leveling to create very capable platoons."
But some things did not need revamping: "What did not change is that we are still training lethal platoons," MAJ Meyer explained. "And leadership is leadership."
Some skill sets had to be adapted. Since heavy brigades are equipped with 120 mm mortars, the 1st BCT mortar crews had to be trained on the 60 mm and 81 mm mortars they will use in Afghanistan, for example. The BCT also tripled its mortar density, building mortar crews from scratch.
"It's easy to focus on equipment; it's easy to focus on 'stuff.' Those are things that are tangible," MAJ Meyer said. "Ultimately, it's leadership and people. Ultimately, it's a mind-set - a mind-set that we have to prove ourselves. Success is the mind-set."
"The change of mind-set, we call 'the juice,'" said CPT Mikel Resnick, commander of the 1st BCT's Company D, 1st Battalion, 66th Armor (1/66 Armor). He explained, "It's physical and mental toughness. It's a total shift: We're not an armor company anymore; we're a light infantry company. We're not an armor battalion anymore; we're a light infantry battalion. In fact, we don't even refer to ourselves as the 1/66 Armor - we say we're Task Force 1/66."
The captain said that during the previous seven to eight months, his company - cross-leveled to be a 50-50 armor/infantry unit - conducted only dismounted operations, leading up to its mission rehearsal exercise at the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC), Fort Polk, LA.
"We were the first tank company to go through JRTC, and they couldn't tell that we were tankers," CPT Resnick said.
The company instituted a grueling physical training (PT) regimen of road marches, running obstacle courses with 100-pound loads and National Football League combine-based challenges that were militarily adapted. The soldiers did hill sprints wearing individual body armor (IBA) and climbs up sides of the nearby Rockies in IBA.
"The key element was that off-post PT," CPT Resnick said. "Here at Fort Carson, we can do PT at 8,000 or 9,000 feet, and that can't be replicated anywhere else."
The 1st BCT's objective was to create independent and self-reliant platoons, adapted specifically for operations in Afghanistan with more combat punch and added capabilities. Combat medical capabilities were increased using training techniques borrowed from the Ranger first-responder program to create advanced combat lifesavers who the 1st BCT call "Raider first responders" for their Raider brigade designation.
The number and capabilities of squad designated marksmen were ramped up, issuing enhanced battle rifle sets - which are composed of the latest variant of 7.62 mm, M14-based rifles, accurized and outfitted with a 10-power scope, bipod and lightweight stock - and bringing in a training team from the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit (USAMU) to train the brigade's squad designated marksmen on the system and distance shooting in general.
SSG Joel Micholick, an instructor with the Fort Benning, GA.-based USAMU mobile training team, which incorporated volunteer civilian instructors from the Civilian Marksmanship Program, said, "We take a soldier and give him an understanding of trajectory and how to incorporate environmental effects like wind - generally, what things can affect a shot, why they happen and how to adjust for them."
Squad designated marksmen from the 1st BCT unboxed their new weapons, and the USAMU team helped them in adjusting scope eye relief, trigger pull and the like. The team conducted classroom instruction and took trainees to the range to zero the weapons and for practical application, which meant a lot of shooting.
"My hope for these guys is that we can teach them to use their weapons effectively, integrate that into the squad and ultimately be a force multiplier," SSG Micholick said. "The team's goal is to give soldiers confidence in the weapon system and the knowledge to survive and succeed."
Along the lines of the squad designated marksman enhancement, the brigade has incorporated a squad-designated linguist training. Approximately 300 of the brigade's soldiers graduated from an intensive seven-week course in Dari and Pashto conducted by a mobile training team organized by the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center. Classes were held four days a week, six hours a day, to give soldiers a "tactical vocabulary" of at least 300 words (a minimum standard exceeded by many students) as well as practical skills in constructing sentences and conveying ideas by conversing with native Afghan instructors in scenarios they are likely to encounter once in theater.
"The overall idea of our training is independent empowerment, creating self-reliant and independent platoons," MAJ Meyer explained.
As of this writing, the 1st BCT, the Army's newest light infantry brigade, has deployed to Afghanistan and will test its skills in combat soon.