Soldiers prepare for battle

Thursday, August 3, 2006

Members of the 203rd Engineer Battalion of the Missouri National Guard participated in annual training at Camp Crowder in Neosho last week.

Guardsmen took part in construction projects, equipment training and other skill seminars during the week. Soldiers also under went platoon convoy operations training, which taught them how to deal with improvised explosive devices, rules of engagement and how to react to ambush.

"We are conducting what we call 'lanes' training, consisting of convoy operations, counter-improvised explosive device training and other tasks geared toward real-world situations in Iraq and Afghanistan," said Lt. James Vaughn, unit public affairs representative.

Officers, experienced in combat, designed general drill training scenarios, which were brought to life by operation force guardsmen impersonating enemies.

Each platoon was issued equipment and vehicles for the lanes training exercises, which began at around 7 a.m. each morning.

Soldiers worked through a variety of scenarios in the morning, learning from their mistakes, and then repeated the scenarios with improvements during a second run-through in the afternoon.

Battle scenarios included a battlefield with improvised explosive devices, a village with enemies disguised among a crowd of civilians and several ambush situations.

"This is good training for new and experienced soldiers because things are constantly changing in Iraq," said Vaughn. "The enemy constantly changes its tactics in this war."

As soldiers worked through the battle scenarios, they learned convoy operation practices, communication skills, directional skills and medical treatment practices.

Guardsmen used laser tag-style equipment on their weapons, blank bullets and body sensor boxes to help simulate injuries and fatalities on the battlefields. When a soldiers' sensor was activated, that soldier was out of the fight until the next scenario.

"Although the terrain is much different than the urban area in Iraq, soldiers are able to learn many skills that are necessary in Middle Eastern-style combat," said Vaughn.

Combat-experienced guardsmen designed the village scenario to simulate confusion in the urban area battlefields. Soldiers were forced to find enemies among a crowd of civilians.

"When you are going through the urban areas, the enemy will look like anyone else," said Vaughn. "They will just jump up and start firing on you."

Guardsmen used mission instructions to move soldiers from one scenario to the next.

In the village scenario, soldiers were instructed to move down the road to a construction area to work on a project. As the soldiers journeyed from the village to the construction area, another set of operations force enemies were waiting to ambush the convoy.

"We set up several ambush situations, because that is a lot of what we deal with in Iraq," said Sgt. Mike Harris, who served in Iraq for 14 months. "One military vehicle can go through an area, and in less than two minutes, the enemy will have a road block set up to wipe the rest of the soldiers out."

Harris used his combat knowledge to evaluate soldiers between scenarios. At the completion of each stage, soldiers discussed their strengths, weaknesses and mistakes on the battlefield.

"These soldiers are able to receive a wealth of knowledge from the guys wearing the combat patches," said Vaughn.

Through the convoy operations training, experienced soldiers are in charge of equipment training, leadership evaluation and troop instruction.

"The leaders must pass information down the line," said Vaughn. "If they don't, there will be no one in charge. We push leadership skills in all areas of training from basic training forward."

Soldiers also learn basic skills like how to move in and out of military vehicles in full gear and how to protect and shoot from moving vehicles.

The most important skill soldiers learn during lanes training is how to work together, said Sgt. Benjamin Swan, who helped design the scenarios.

"We wanted to prepare them for combat in the Middle East," said Swan. "We want them to know their individual weaknesses, learn each others weaknesses, and we want to improve their experience. It's a learning process where we believe practice will make perfect."

Although Swan believes construction project experience helps soldiers develop important skills, he believes that battle sequence training creates stronger bonds between soldiers.

"We put them in a really stressful situation," said Swan. "Although they know the bullets aren't real, you can still see they are being stressed. These exercises force them out of their comfort zone into a very different kind of situation."

Lanes training was designed to allow soldiers to learn battle skills in a controlled, instructional environment, said Swan. Guardsmen are expected to learn skills through a three step process called "Crawl, Walk and Run."

"Right now they are at the crawl stage, because this is the first time they have been through this," said Swan. "This is like a walk-through practice. When they come back in the afternoon, we want them to start moving toward a more polished walk phase. After they have worked together for a year or so, they will reach the run stage."

Swan asks soldiers to take the lanes training ideas back to their individual areas and practice the skills during regularly scheduled drill weekends.

Around 25 guardsmen, experienced in combat, were in charge of making lanes training possible. Officers worked as operation forces, or enemies, the design observer control team and evaluators throughout the week.

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