Thursday, October 30, 2008

It's All About Training

To put it in an easy to understand perspective let's compare the Army to the game of baseball. Baseball is a long drawn out game, interrupted by moments of sheer excitement. Army life is a long drawn out process of training, interrupted by moments of sheer excitement.

We have been here at Fort Dix for about two weeks and each day has been filled by a variety of training classes and hands on practical exercises. Our training classes are sometimes called "death by powerpoint" - meaning that we sit and watch powerpoint presentations until we are on the brink of death. As difficult as it is to stay awake during these classroom sessions, it's a necessary evil. You can't perform any task without some kind of instruction.

Where the excitement comes in is during the P.E's or practical exercises. That's when we get to take the book and powerpoint learning and practice it in a real environment. The past week has been a combination of these two.

Now, at the end of the week, all the classroom time pays off as we went to several firing ranges to put all our book learning into practice. We each got to fire several "sexy" weapons; the .50 cal machine gun; M249 and 240B machine guns and the MK 19 grenade launcher. It was time to rock and roll, as we say. An opportunity to blow some stuff up and feel the thrill of real American firepower.

It's hard to explain to someone who is not a Soldier how it feels to fire one of these weapons - to aim at something downrange and hit it; to apply a skill you have developed over time and feel confident that you are doing it right - that your fellow Soldiers can count on you if the time comes to employ your skills.

Beleive me, none of us want to be placed in a position to use any weapon in a real situation, but if any of us is called on to defend life and liberty, it's a very gratifying feeling to know that we can come through for each other. And that's why we train.

There is another Army training staple that Soldiers can count on - foul weather. The Army saying goes, "if it ain't raining, it ain't training." Add to that axiom, snow and freezing temperatures. In an earlier post I mentioned the irony of being at one of the coldest places in the US in preparation for deploying to one of the hottest on Earth. To add to that irony, this week we had a Noreaster blow in an inch of wet snow. Honestly, it was well timed. The snow storm was the only thing that woke us up during some of the more boring classes we had scheduled this week.

In true 211th style, however, no training would be complete without a great sense of humor and a lot of fun. There were a lot of laughs, group singing and a pizza party. We are still training hard but, we haven't lost our ability to keep it real.

We have a week left to our stint here at Dix and the next several days are expected to increase in intensity as we put into practice the skills we've been focusing on for the past two weeks. Before it gets too deep though, we'll be trick or treating tomorrow from room to room.

The training never ends here, but the fun never stops.


- Sgt. Heise gets familiar with the M240B machine gun.

- Sgt. Ebel catches a few ZZZ's during lunch break.

- The fighting 211th conductsw a tactical road march down a tank trail near range #6.

- Sgt. Taylor prepares a blasting cap before inserting into a claymore mine.

- Sgt. Zoeller disassembles a machine gun.

- Taking a load off the back, Soldiers wait for their turn to fire the M9 pistol.

- Spec. Fardette slings his .50 cal ammo over a shoulder before firing the big gun.

Friday, October 24, 2008

If You Have to be Away From Home, Make it Fun

Imagine that the last glint of sun is just disappearing below the horizon.

Imagine that you are on a bus with 18 other Soldiers (your buddies, the ones you will count on to cover you when danger comes) headed to a firing range where you will use your M16 to shoot at targets in the dark of night.

Imagine that the pressure is on to hit seven out of 30 targets - only 7 of 30. You gotta know that if you only have to hit 7 out of 30 targets that this will be a difficult task.

Imagine that this exercise is designed to simulate fending off an enemy who attacks in the middle of the night.

Imagine the concentration and focus it must take to complete this task while recognizing the importance of refining the skill.

Now imagine those 18 Soldiers on a bus; headed for the range in the dark of night; singing as many theme songs to all the sitcoms they can think of at the top of their lungs; laughing at how off key they are and making fun of each other for singing the wrong words.

This is not your normal Army unit! This is the 211th MPAD. Even the bus driver comments on the strangeness of the moment. "I've driven a bus at Ft. Dix for a long time and this is the first time I've ever had a unit singing songs on the way out to the range," said she.

Amazingly, every Soldier in the 211th qualifies without a hitch. The singing doesn't put them off their game one bit. They put their game face on; get the job done; and go back to laughing, kidding one another and having a great time. (Kudos to Pfc. Mitchell who hit 29 out of 30)

This scenario is standard fare for the 211th. They have fun, but they don't let the fun get in the way of the mission at hand. They all seem to know when to focus and when to relax. It's a commander and first sergeants dream.

We've been busy the last few days. We went to supply and got our first equipment and clothing issue. A total of one duffel bag and a huge back pack of gear. From extreme cold weather clothing and protective goggles to helmets and camelback hydration systems. We are getting all the free clothes we can handle.

Yesterday we completed the first of our weapons qualification tests. First we zeroed our weapons. Zeroing is the process of making sure that when we fire our weapon, the bullet (or round) hits the target we aim at.

After zero qualification we went to the full qualification range. We get 40 rounds and have to hit no less than 28 targets to get qualified. It's not easy. It really does take skill. The first test comes when we put on our protective mask and fire 20 rounds at two 50 meter targets. Each Soldier has to hit 11 targets to qualify. This is pretty tough. You can't see out of the mask very well and it is even more difficult to see the weapon site and aim. Again, every Soldier qualified.

Then we move on to shooting targets without the mask. On the range targets pop out of the ground at various intervals at 50, 150, 200 and 300 meters. You have 3 - 7 seconds to hit a given target. We shoot from a prone (laying) position on the ground in two different positions and while kneeling. The process moves along pretty quickly and when the smoke clears (literally - from firing the weapons) you are either a GO or a NO GO for the event. Again, all of our Soldier qualified - they were all GO's.

Finally, we had a great time brushing up on our land navigation (landnav) skills. The day started out very cold. There was frost on the ground and temperatures were in the low 30's. There was not nearly enough extreme cold weather gear to keep us warm.

With landnav we had to find three points on a map and move from point to point without getting lost. Each point was somewhere between 300 and 600 meters away from each other. Not that hard if you are walking across a parking lot at a mall. This was not that easy. We had a lot of trees, briar's, dead wood, hills and ticks standing between each point. It was a challenge, but, like riding a bike, it seemed to be a skill that came back easily to everyone. Nobody missed a point and nobody got lost. I'm not sure if any ticks were found - while we are close as a unit, we like to stop at tick searches.

Kudos for the day go to the whole unit. A big Hooah for the 211th!


- A weird picture of our bus from inside looking out at the mirror on the front of the bus.

- Looking down the sights. Sgt. Heise zeros her weapon on the zero range.

- Christmas in October. The Army gives our Soldiers new equipment and clothing.

- After a day of firing our M16's on the qualification range each Soldier returns to the firing line to find (police up) spent M16 cartridges for recycling the valuable brass. (left - Sgt. Zoeller/right Sgt. Taylor)

- Spc. Anderson and Sgt. Ebel re-enact the posing of American Gothic as it would have been while on an Army firing range.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Winds of Change – In New Jersey

Here we are at Fort Dix, New Jersey. The mornings are cold, but when the sun rises here – well, it is still somewhat cold. Fortunately, by the end of the day, when the sun settles in the western sky, you can have some assurance that the nights will be just as cold as the days and the mornings. That’s what Army life is all about – consistency.

I find it kind of ironic that we are here at Fort Dix, one of the coldest Army locations in the U.S., preparing for our deployment to Iraq, one of the hottest locations on Earth – go figure. No matter, the training we are receiving here works just as well in the cold as it does in warmer climes.

We arrived here Saturday, October 18th and we literally haven’t stopped going since. We started off with Army combatives, a mixture of martial arts used for hand-to-hand combat. It was a hit with everyone – literally, we all felt like we had been hit – over and over. There have been a lot of sore muscles and visible bruises from that training.

Our trainers were excellent! They taught us some very basic offensive and defensive fight moves and techniques that, as they put it, were just enough to help us get our butts kicked. What they didn’t tell us is that we would be the ones kicking each other’s butts.

When the formal instruction was over, the instructors had us pair up and challenge each other in one-minute bouts. I am proud to say that nobody held back, each of our Soldiers fought hard, used their new skills, as best they could, and came out fighting.After combatives came our weapons training with the 9mm pistol. For many of our Soldiers this was the first formal training they have had on this particular weapon but, you wouldn’t know it. They all took to it well and in the dry fire portion of the training our troops did great. (dry fire – firing the weapon without actual ammunition - only a laser sensor that simulates firing that makes noise when you have hit the target).

I am continually impressed with the maturity of this unit and how quickly and sincerely they have taken to each other. I watched them helping each other, encouraging each other and making sure no Soldier was left behind. This is one of the Army’s axioms as stated in The Soldiers Creed – “I will never leave a fallen comrade”.

This unit truly has become one of the most cohesive units I have ever been a part of. The caliber of our Soldiers is impressive and I truly am proud to call them my Soldiers. I can speak for MAJ Daneker as well, as she has expressed these same feelings in our discussions. We couldn’t ask for a better group of Soldiers to take on this mission.

Back to our training – we also focused several hours on the use of our protective masks or promasks, as we call them. Most people outside the military call them gas masks. Again, we had a great instructor. Interestingly, the instructor mentioned that he had once considered retraining and becoming an Army broadcaster and joining a public affairs detachment. You would have thought the entire unit were recruiters by the way they told the instructor how great it was to be a public affairs Soldier. Comments from all around the room were directed at him to leave his current military occupation and to come to public affairs. Our Soldiers truly love this field, it shows in their enthusiasm when they talk about it.

Finally, today was a full day of instruction on the use of our assigned weapon, the M16. We started early and picked up our weapons at the weapons vault. Then we headed to the classroom about a half mile away where we reviewed the simple steps of taking an M16 apart and cleaning it. We also had great instruction on new techniques for more accurate shooting.If there is one thing I’ve learned over the years, it is that Soldiers love to shoot their weapon. They don’t always like the classes that teach you how to shoot, but when it comes time to shoot, they really like to light up the targets. We’ll get that chance in a few days and I know many of them are looking forward to it.

To end the day we had PT (physical training). We won’t get many opportunities to have PT while we’re here, but we got out of our classes a little early today and so we had some chow (food) and then went as a group to the post gymnasium. After a quick stretching session, given by SSG Burrell, we broke out and participated in a variety of physical activities – volleyball, running, walking, cardio glides and some of our folks played a few games of ping pong. It wasn’t strenuous, but it was fun.

Kudos for the day go to SSG Delgado. SSG Delgado won’t be deploying with us since he will be focusing on becoming an officer through the direct commission program. However, he is here with us making sure that all of our administrative and logistical issues are addressed. His work here allows all of our deploying Soldiers to focus on training and preparing for deployment. We truly cannot thank him enough for his efforts here and will surely miss having him along for the extended ride over to the sandbox. Good job SSG Delgado.

Photos (top to bottom):

- The unit marches to class in an early Jersey morning. Pfc. Mitchell is our guidon bearer, a traditional Army role for the youngest member of a unit.

- 2Lt. Almodovar, Maj. Daneker and others clear their weapon during the 9mm weapon training class.

- Sgt. Ebel dons his protective mask. During our promask training.

- First Sgt. Martinez takes a beating during Army Combatives training.

- Spec. Logue takes aim during the M16 dry fire exercise.

- SSG Burrell sets his sites during the dry fire exercise.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Stepping It Up

Morning came early for the 211th today. Our first formation was at 0230 (2:30 am) in preparation for transportation to the Houston airport and our flight to the Regional Training Center at Fort Dix, NJ.

Many thanks to Angie Martinez who provided some freshly baked cinnamon rolls for our morning snack and a bag of homemade chocolate chip cookies for snacks on the trip out.

The day was long and after four hours of flight time, 3 hours of ground transport and a two-hour layover in Chicago we made our destination at Fort Dix. First on the docket was a real Army meal at the local chow hall. Honestly, the meal met all and any expectation one could have for a free military meal. With a little imagination and a suspension of reality the meal was like a gourmet feast. MM-MM-MM.

Tomorrow the first day of our 3 week training begins. Our first class will be combatives (military martial arts). The Soldiers are looking forward to it and frankly so are the the commander and me. It's a great way to mark the moment. I'm sure there will be a few bruised and sore muscles come Monday morning, but it will make the memory more, well - memorable.

Stay tuned for more.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Back to The Basics of Training

This week was a trip down memory lane for us as we were placed in the hands of a small squad of Army Reserve drill sergeants from Bravo Battery 1st of the 355th, 95th Training Division, from Corpus Christi, Texas. Their job was to provide us with refresher training on some basic soldier skills and to help us all get into the mindset of thinking the Army way.

Even after 20 years in the Army I still feel that tinge of fear when I see a drill sergeant in his brown round. Just the sight of a drill sergeant with their distinctive hat, dark sunglasses and impeccable military bearing sends a shot of adrenaline into the system. It's ingrained into you from the day you enter the army as a private and stays with you till the day you retire to the old Soldiers home.

As I mentioned to the Soldiers during our final formation - it's a love hate relationship we develop with drill sergeants. On the one hand we fear even being around them and on the other hand we have a great sense of gratitude for everything they teach us. They truly are a part of who we are as Soldiers.

We reviewed some basic skills this week - things we have trained on for years, but that somehow seem a bit more poignant now, as we prepare to deploy.

We worked with our weapons, reviewed advanced first aid techniques and revisited a number of other basic Soldier skills that, together, help Soldiers pay attention to details. Attention to detail is the heart of survival for a Soldier. Everything we do as Soldiers is surrounded by details - what we see, what we hear, what we feel and ultimately what we do with the details we observe.

Most of the tasks we trained on this week, we learned in basic training, and in many cases simply reviewing the standards and steps of each training task was enough to rekindle the memories of what we already knew. In the end these training sessions helped restore the confidence we once had when we were younger Soldiers or reinforce the skills our younger Soldiers learned during their more recent basic training.

In addition to the great training we got, we made a few new memories too. On one occasion the entire unit was disciplined for not obeying a simple order to have and drink water regularly in order to protect ourselves from dehydration.

This may seem like a minor infraction, but as we are headed to a location where heat casualties are frequent, it is a simple detail that, if followed, will save lives. As punitive punishment, the drill sergeants put the entire unit in the front leaning rest position (push up position) and with a sense of pleasure had us doing slow cadence push-ups. Then they put us back up on our feet - and without skipping a beat had us back down on the ground to do slow cadence flutter kicks (laying on your back with your feet held above the ground about six inches and slowly shuffling you feet up and down in the air). When we finally got back up to the position of attention, Drill Sergeant Enriquez yelled out, "I bet your thirsty now, right?" That first cool drink after that was enough to remind us to always keep our water with us and to drink often.

When it's all said and done, the pain of the punishment reminds you of the value of attention to details and following the orders of those appointed over you.

That said, we did get a little revenge on the drill sergeants later in the week. At different times during the week the drill sergeants would drop a fake grenade in our work areas to help us put some of our training into action. On the first couple tests of how we would react to this mock exercise, we didn't do so well, but by the end of the week we were more attentive to what was going on around us and our reaction times were greatly improved.

"You have to be aware of your surroundings at all times and in all places," said the drill sergeants. In the end we helped THEM understand that we got the message loud and clear. A couple of our soldiers set booby traps for the drill sergeants on our last day together. Wouldn't you know it they didn't pass the test and they fell victim to our simulated traps. They knew they were HAD and like great sports they laughed right along with us - a great lesson was learned and a great memory was made.

This really is a slice of what Army life is like for a Soldier. We train hard, we work hard and we have a great time doing both.

Next week we ratchet up the training when we go to one of the Army's Regional Training Centers for a more intense and advanced training program. It will be in a field environment and it will be the first test of how we work as a team. We'll keep you posted.

As a token of appreciation, each of our drill sergeant trainers was presented a special coin of recognition from our commander, MAJ Daneker. Many thanks to these great American Warriors. (SSG Barajas, SSG Alfred, SSG Pepau, SSG Enriquez, SGT Botello, SSG Bertrand)

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Fall In!

It never seems to amaze me how Soldiers are able to quickly survey a situation and determine how they can make a positive impact.

A commonly used term in military drill and ceremony is the command "fall in". When this command is given, all the Soldiers of the unit quickly and quietly take their assigned place in a unit formation. It's a very orderly thing really. As a background - a unit formation is made up of several ranks. At the head of each rank is the squad leader. In perfect order each member of the squad will line up directly to the left of the squad leader - ensuring that they are approximately an arms length from each Soldier on their left and right. The next rank that lines up behind the first rank does the same thing and at the same time ensures that they are lined up directly behind the Soldier in the rank in front of them.

When done right, the formation (from above) would look something like this:

Everyone knows their place, leaders are always located in the same position. If someone is missing, the formation won't look complete. For the platoon leader, who stands before the formation, it is the easiest and most efficient way to account for all of his Soldiers and to communicate important information.

The 211th is "falling in" quite nicely. The Soldiers seem to be figuring out how they fit in with the other Soldiers in the unit. Our leaders are starting to take hold of their leadership reigns and this team is truly coming together.

We have a great variety of skills, backgrounds, experiences and even ages in the 211th and, at this point, they all seem to be complimentary to each other.

Kudos today go to one of our young enlisted Soldiers, PFC Arlon Mitchell. He's quiet, but he's busy. Looking forward 12 months from now, it is my opinion that he'll truly be one of the unit's MVPs. When we all introduced ourselves during one of our first meetings, he quietly stated his name and almost apologetically said, "I'm just the HR Specialist". So far, he's the busiest Soldier in the group and if anything he'll be JUST what the unit will need to get through months ahead us.

In the days ahead we'll put classroom briefings on hold and start some of our warrior task training. MAJ Daneker has arranged for several drill sergeants to come and run us through the gauntlet on these tasks. With a warning she said, "it's gonna be boot camp all over again." Oddly some of the Soldiers didn't bat an eye - some people just love being abused.

Here are a few pictures from the day:

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Day One

Getting on the same sheet of music can sometimes be painful. Yesterday our unit started to do just that. Like the sprinkles at the beginning of a rainstorm the morning saw a few soldiers report until, by the end of the day, we were a full blown storm, all in one room.

The first few days of any new adventure are always frought with uneasiness, stops, starts and just plain trying to figure it out. In my experience, it's a necessary step in making a team come together. So far - so good.

For our first day we started the SRP (soldier readiness processing) and had our initial SJA (Staff Judge Advocate) briefing. No offense to our briefer, but it was hard to stay awake. There were alot of bobbing heads and heavy eyelids in the briefing room.

Kudos for the day go to SPC Erik Fardette, one of our broadcasters on loan to us from the 305th MPAD in Hawaii. He crossed 4 time zones and sat on a plane for way too long to get to Bryan, TX. I don't know how long he had been up before he hit the rack lastnight, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't soon enough.

We are still missing a few soldiers to complete the unit. Some are in school, others aren't even assigned yet. We look forward to having the whole team together soon.

Today will see more briefings and more opportunities to get to know each other. Our team NCOIC's, SFC Burke and SFC Quebec will conduct their initial counselings with their soldiers in order to let each soldier know what to expect over the year ahead.

Overall - I feel good about the team and look foward to the experiences ahead.