The Sandbox

GWOT hot wash, straight from the wire

Welcome to The Sandbox, a forum for service members who have served or are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, returned vets, spouses and caregivers. The Sandbox's focus is not on policy and partisanship (go to our Blowback page for that), but on the unclassified details of deployment -- the everyday, the extraordinary, the wonderful, the messed-up, the absurd. All correspondence is read, and as much as possible is posted, lightly edited. If you know someone who is deployed who might have something to say, please tell them about us. To submit a post click here.


October 04, 2011

Name: J.P. Raab
Returned from: Afghanistan
Returning to: Afghanistan
Hometown: Rochester, NY
Milblog: With a Bible in My Ruck

In the early part of summer, our National Guard brigade took part in a three-week long training session to build up our basic soldiering skills. Many of our tasks were “skill level 1,” meaning we spent time working on the basics of soldiering. In our down time, “white space,” or “Sergeants' Time,” (they don't often call it that anymore, because that would imply that sergeants still hold authority or respect in the Army) our platoon would practice what are known as battle drills. These drills involved practiced, flexible, and dynamic responses to given tactical situations. That is, when we are faced with a problem or a situation, we have a typical response prepared. These responses usually always begin with basic Army and infantry doctrine – the textbook answer – and are expanded upon and modified to suit a given situation.

The culmination of our dismounted infantry training was a several kilometer-long stretch of mud and overgrowth called “The Fight Lane.” We had been hearing about the course since our arrival in Fort Drum, and had seen many Soldiers returning to the circus tents completely black with mud. We were promised a long, intense, and challenging course that would test our recently-developed cohesion at the squad (8-10 men) level.

It was raining the day our platoon arrived at the course. I do not think that it would have made a difference; the Soldiers in charge of our training had warned us to expect to get wet and muddy no matter what. As our platoon waited inside of one of the range buildings, we discussed different strategies to prevent our gear from getting gummed up with mud. As infantrymen, we did not necessarily mind getting dirty, but as National Guardsmen, we knew that we would have next to no time to clean up our gear or our weapons, because our training schedule was so packed. We knew we might – might – have a few hours to clean our weapons, gear, or take a shower after we completed the lane before we had to report to our next range. We would be spending about three days and two nights in the field at the mounted gunnery course, and no one wanted to go into the field with their weapons, magazines, web gear, uniform, and boots caked with mud.

Some Soldiers put their rain gear over their web gear (the vests we wear over our body armor that hold our magazines and grenades), while others simply put it over their body armor. I was resolved to my fate, so I simply threw on my wet weather pants and threw my jacket on over the armor but under the web gear. I wanted to be able to access my magazines easily during the fight.

When it was our squad's turn to move onto the lane, we met our OCs (Observer / Controllers, Soldiers who would direct us and act as “referees” in the simulated battle). They were quite muddy, and they met us with smiles and promises of “good training.” [These OCs, it should be said, overall did a good job guiding our training for that day, but there were a few hiccups along the way.]

It's my experience that whenever someone promises you “good training,” that person typically means getting you as uncomfortable and as tired as possible.

We moved down to the base of a road leading up into “MOUT (Military Operations in Urban Terrain) City,” the makeshift village that units at Fort Drum often used to train for urban combat scenarios. After we cleared our weapons and loaded our blank magazines, we started our tactical movement towards the buildings.

The rain fell in a light drizzle. Rain drops hit my eyepro, blurring my vision. I would stop to wipe away the water, but eventually gave up. The adrenaline began to pump into my bloodstream as I felt my excitement grow.

The lo-fi crackle of a Muslim call to prayer echoed out from somewhere within the village. Although the buildings and their disposition implied a more contemporary western city rather than the Stone Age Afghan village they were meant to represent, the sorrowful music helped sell the sense of immersion. As I listened to the singer wail over the tired recording, I felt myself brought back to afternoons pulling security in Baracki Barack, mindful of the time the call to prayer sounded, knowing that any deviation in routine signaled a rallying opportunity for the Taliban.

Our squad moved into the settlement. Men in manjammies and women in full burkas scurried about at the edge of our vision. Some of them stared at us from windows or doorways. A door slammed shut somewhere, echoing like a gunshot against concrete alleyways.

When we reached what appeared to be the village center, my 203 gunner started interacting with a merchant who was selling fruit at a small stand. While my squad leader parlayed with the local men, the other team leader and I moved our individual Soldiers into better defensive positions or pulled security.

Sergeant H, our squad leader, learned that there was a possible sniper in the buildings ahead. We thanked the locals for the intelligence, and as we began to move out, took fire immediately. All of the Soldiers took cover, and our squad scattered to various positions. We occupied roughly 300 meters of terrain, but our positions were haphazard and we had very little control of the situation. It's been said that a good sniper can halt the progress of a whole battalion; a bad sniper can at the least make a squad re-think its movement.

As we took cover, we called out to see if anyone had seen a muzzle flash or a direction of fire. We assumed it was to our 12 o'clock, but no one could be sure from where the shot came. My point man and I were closest to the front of the formation, but we could not see anything except for empty windows and scattering civilians.

“Why aren't you shooting?” one of the OCs hollered over to me. I looked over at him – he stood right in the middle of the street while the rest of us took cover. He walked over to me, barking out frustrated instructions.

Behind me, one of the OCs called one of our Soldiers as hit, so Sergeant H popped a smoke canister for concealment as others dragged the casualty into a nearby building. As the purple smoke welled up towards the sky, the OC continued to scream at me.

“Where's your covering fire?! Start shooting!”

I began to fire my rifle and hollered for the point man to do the same. We got through about half a magazine each when another OC came up behind me.

“What the fuck are you doing? Can you see the sniper?”

“No sergeant, I can't.”

“Then why the fuck are you firing? You're breaking the rules of engagement!” He threw his arms up in frustration.

“The other guy told me to start firing – ” I started, but then stopped. There was no point in arguing with OCs. They just got pissed off at you. In training, often you are not supposed to respond tactically to a situation. You are supposed to do what the OCs want you to do. Often, what the OCs tell you to do does not make sound tactical sense, but if you don't do it their way, you get gigged. And if you do do what they tell you, another OC will come up and tell you how “fucked up” you are – like this situation. So I didn't bother arguing with the guy.

“Cease fire!” I called out. My point man looked over at me and frowned, but he lowered his rifle.

By now, the OCs had marked additional casualties. In a real-world situation, if a squad loses two or three men to wounds or death, it is rendered combat ineffective. Had this been a real engagement and had we taken casualties, we would have set up a casualty collection point in a secure location or withdrawn while calling in indirect fire on the suspected sniper position. But because it was training, we had to advance upon the enemy, irregardless of how we would operate in real life. I know this teaches aggressiveness and confidence in our battle drill training, but when real rounds fly, you tend not to act like you are training anymore.

The squad reconsolidated inside of the building closest to Sergeant H. I ordered my team back to that position, and we rallied inside. The sniper fire stopped as the OCs offered some choice insults for our squad's reaction. Again, it is hard to tell whether such comments were meant to be taken literally, or if they were part of building a stressful environment. If you continue to operate despite what they are saying, you can get gigged. If you stop to listen to them because you think they might be serious, you get gigged. It's often not a good addition to training.

Sergeant H ordered us to advance after our “casualties” were restored to life.

Heading back outside by a different street, we located the target building and entered it. In planning and in doctrine, every movement and action is clear, concise, and well laid out. In the field, phrases like “dynamic entry” mean run as fast as you can into the building with your weapon ready with whomever is still around and alive.

War is, at best, marginally organized chaos. It is how a unit responds to the chaos, and how it maintains a semblance of control, that marks its proficiency.

I plunged into the target building, stumbling through the dark. I heard the popping of blank rounds ahead of me, and smelled their acrid smoke.

To be continued...


Here's a secret to destroying the OC's and OPFOR. When the OC's observe your pre-planning and walk through of a mission, intentionally change all aspects of your plan in secret after that. Then execute and watch in delight as the OC's and OPFOR are completely caught with their pants down when you show up on a different part of the objective. This is how it works in real life too. Never allow your interpreters or local's in on the real plans prior to a mission. This of course only applies to large training missions that involve the whole company. During squad level training you're on your own with the OC's.

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