[ The Real McCoy Online Home ]                                                                                                                       August 8, 2008

Patriot '08 exercise promotes joint 
Army, Air Guard training

By Staff Sgt. Jon Soucy, The Real McCoy Contributor

FORT MCCOY, Wis. — Steel-grey clouds hung heavily in the calm air as rain threatened. Soldiers crouched in a single- file line near the edge of a field, listening to the chop of rotor blades in the distance, growing louder as a quick breeze fluttered past.

Photo: Soldiers from Company A, 48th Brigade Special Troops Battalion wait to board a landing UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter during exercise Patriot ’08 at Fort McCoy. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Jon Soucy)
Soldiers from Company A, 48th Brigade Special Troops Battalion wait to board a landing UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter during exercise Patriot ’08 at Fort McCoy. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Jon Soucy)

Suddenly, two UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters appeared over the trees at the far end of the field. As they landed their rotor wash created a mad dance across the field as the Soldiers moved in a hunched-over fashion toward them.

Within seconds of clambering aboard the Blackhawks, the whine of the rotors changed slightly in pitch and the pilots lifted the birds off the ground, leaving the field quiet once again.

This airlift mission was just one part of Patriot ’08, a National Guard-sponsored training exercise that brought together Army and Air National Guard elements, active-duty and reserve units, and Canadian, British and Dutch forces.

Split between three locations — Camp Ripley, Minn., Fort McCoy and Volk Airfield, Wis. — Patriot ’08 was a 21-day, large-scale exercise featuring more than 45 units from as many states. But, unlike other such training events, Patriot ’08 featured no observer-controllers or graders.

Exercise planners said that gave commanders the ability to build the exercise to meet their unit training needs. For the Soldiers of the 48th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (IBCT), that resulted in additional training time to prepare for their upcoming deployment to Afghanistan.

"We’re focusing on making sure everyone is fully medically-ready," said Army Lt. Col. Tom Bright, commander of the 48th Brigade Special Troops Battalion (BSTB), 48th IBCT. "But when we’re not doing that we’re focusing on new equipment training."

For Bright, whose unit was recently stood up as part of the Army’s modular restructuring, it also gave him an opportunity to work with his subordinate commanders in order to flesh out the battalion’s new role.

"The challenge for me is the BSTB is still a new organization within the Army," he said. "What this gives us is an opportunity to pull all the leadership and the Soldiers together and start to develop that synergy between elements, so we can make the BLT instead of having bacon, lettuce, tomato and toasted wheat bread. Now, it’s going to be the sandwich."

And for others, making that sandwich meant a shift in how they operate.

After returning from Iraq in 2006, the 48th IBCT transitioned from being a heavy, mechanized brigade with M2 Bradleys and M1A1 Abrams tanks to a light infantry unit.

"We were always cruising around in M113s (armored personnel carriers)," said Army Staff Sgt. Bryan Neal, a squad leader and combat engineer with Company A, 48th BSTB, 48th IBCT. 

"And then when we were deployed to Iraq we had Humvees — up-armored Humvees" with 50 cals (machine gun) on top and we were riding around doing (route clearance) missions. Now we have six, cargo-back Humvees so we move either by air or in those vehicles and march everywhere."

For the exercise, Bryan and his Soldiers trained with these new vehicles and methods, something they normally couldn’t do at homestation. "The airlifts have been a big help," he said. "It’s a lot of stuff that we don’t normally have or can’t get our hands on, but with (the exercise) we have all those assets here and we’ve definitely been using them. It’s really been a plus to have all that. You train as you fight, so that’s what we’re doing." Training as you fight for some, however, meant training on skills that normally aren’t a part of their skill set, such as medics’ training and calling in artillery fire.

"What (the unit leadership) wants to do is cross-train everybody," said Spc. Paul Cunningham, a combat medic assigned to the 148th Brigade Support Battalion (BSB). "They always told us to learn the different weapons because you never know " you could be the one who has (to use it)."

And for the medics of the 148th BSB the exercise also gave them a chance to refresh skills more closely related to their medic duties. As part of a three-day mass casualty exercise, the medics treated incoming patients at an aid station.

"As medics, we’re trained on the aid station stuff, but they trained us more to be with the infantry," said Cunningham. "So, we’re out there with the aid bag dealing with the patient and then moving them back to the aid station. So for a lot of us, we’re familiar with this, but we didn’t train in detail on it. So, it’s good training."

The exercise also gave the participants the chance to train others at the exercise. For Neal and his Soldiers in Company A, that meant training Air Guard personnel on convoy operations and how to react to IEDs and ambushes.

"They’re going to be mounted on vehicles with a gunner, (truck commander), driver all riding down the road," said Neal. "They spot (an IED) and call it in. They move out and then they have to react to an ambush. We have (opposing forces) out there with blanks, pyro, smoke; the whole nine. Once they get through the ambush, they get struck with an IED. We have IED simulators that will throw up a huge fireball right next to the vehicle."

And according to the Airmen who went through it, the experience was one many wouldn’t soon forget. Though, for some, the toughest part was using the radio.

"We’re watching as people are coming at us and firing at us and I still have to call in (on the radio) and stay calm and just talk to the (higher headquarters)," said Airman Vanessa Wilson, a personnel clerk with the 180th Fighter Wing of the Ohio Air National Guard. "I felt it was exciting because I’ve never done this before and it was exciting because it gives you just a little bit of a taste of what you may have to do if you get deployed."

But Wilson did take away one thing from the experience. "When we came back and (the trainers) gave us our constructive criticism they said "well, you probably should have told (explosive ordnance disposal) where you were located." "Now, next time I’ll know in order for (EOD) to find where the IED is, that I probably need to tell them where I am. So, you learn from it.

(Soucy is with the Army National Guard Bureau Public Affairs Office.)


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