[ The Real McCoy Online Home ]                                                                                                                         June 13, 2008

OPFOR personnel help save lives

By Tom Michele, The Real McCoy Contributor

      "We train to save lives." That is the bottom line, expressed  by Sgt. Erick Vaerla.

Photo: OPFOR Sgt. Eric 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)
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 theater."

      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 came."

      Frias noted his crew conducts training pertinent to the location Soldiers will be going to, as Iraq is different than Afghanistan.            

      Training is 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 Services.)


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