By Tom Michele, The Real McCoy Contributor
"We train to save lives." That is the bottom line,
expressed by Sgt. Erick
OPFOR Sgt. Erick Vaerla of the
181st Infantry Brigade aims his AK-47 rifle at an approaching
group of U.S. Soldiers entering a simulated village at a Fort
McCoy training range.
(Photo by Tom Michele)
"We provide the best realistic training, with an eye on
safety," Vaerla said. He noted opposing forces (OPFOR) Soldiers
are teachers, "We give the trainees the knowledge, tools, keys
and skills to survive."
Vaerla and several of his compatriots with OPFOR Company, 2nd
Battalion, 411th Regiment, 181st Infantry Brigade, told some of the
tales of war at Fort McCoy.
War they helped create. The "Opposing Forces" Company
-- 30 Soldiers, all combat veterans with at least one, some with three
tours of duty in Operations Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom, or Panama
or Kosovo -- is headquartered in building 2012.
But they spend almost all of their time at the dozen or so
small villages on Fort McCoy ranges. And in any brush cluster, mound
of dirt or tree line along a road.
It is from these "headquarters" the OPFOR Soldiers
wage war on Soldiers going through training at the middle of the Army
installation in Wisconsin.
Vaerla said U.S. Soldiers learned the hard way as the conflicts
in Southcentral Asia evolved. "You never know what or who is on
the other side of the door you are about to kick in, whether it is
someone's father or if it is an insurgent. You are a split second away
from your own death."
Vaerla said Soldiers in the OPFOR Company at Fort McCoy
"emphasize 'getting outside of the box' because the enemy has all
of our training and operations manuals. So, we modify ourselves to
what is in a specific theater and what works for us in that
The OPFOR Soldier, who normally wears civilian clothes on the
Fort McCoy battlefield, said OPFOR trains Soldiers to survive and
return to the United States.
"The Soldiers in OPFOR learned as we made mistakes in the
real theaters of operations, and we train Soldiers now so they don't
make the same mistakes of our predecessors," Vaerla said.
Maj. Robert Frias, officer in charge of the OPFOR Company, said
the company was formed in November 2007 and is under the command of
the 181st Infantry Brigade. Frias, a member of the Minnesota Army
National Guard, volunteered for the McCoy OPFOR situation after he had
spent one year in Afghanistan.
"It's an awesome responsibility to train for war,"
Frias said. "Our company's Soldiers are all Operation Warrior
Trainers. We have very experienced and well-trained Soldiers. They are
unique in that they go out and mirror what the war zone looks like.
They go out with equipment to best perform the mission. We want to
send a Soldier out of here with better knowledge than when they
Frias noted his crew conducts training pertinent to the
location Soldiers will be going to, as Iraq is different than
tailored for each branch and military occupational specialty.
The OPFOR team gets much of their direction from the OCTs
(observer controller trainers), to the particular mission the training
Soldiers will be going through at Forward Operating Base (FOB)
Freedom, or FOB Liberty, and the ranges surrounding the FOBs.
"We are one of the most important and valuable tools to
provide mobilizing Soldiers," OPFOR Sgt. Matthew Eads said.
"We promote and foster growth for the mobilizing Soldier so they
will become stronger as a team."
OPFOR team members know and appreciate the seriousness of their
part in the training scene. "Every one of us on the team has lost
a friend in combat," Sgt. Ronnie Petty said.
OPFOR Sgt. Thomas Hageman said, "We are the 'Practice
Team' for training Soldiers to try out and see who will handle the
stress and who will not."
To add even more realism to the training experience, OPFOR
Soldiers often work alongside civilians on the battlefield (COBs) who
role play civilians, "pedestrians" sort of, village folk
walking in their own village, going about their own business of life.
COBs are hired through a contract with the Army.
(Michele is a public affairs specialist for
Eagle Systems and Services Inc., contractor for CONUS Support Base