From July 23 until today, Fort Drum has been holding its biggest training exercise in a decade. WRVO Reporter Joanna Richards donned body armor and a helmet to observe the maneuvers – and find out how they prepare soldiers for war.
The village is full of insurgents, and soldiers with M-16s lie on a berm above it, firing into the low, concrete buildings. After a while, a woman's wailing can be heard below the gunfire.
This isn't a village in Afghanistan, it's part of a training exercise dubbed Operation Mountain Peak at Fort Drum. For about two weeks, 10,000 soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division and several thousand airmen brought in from other units have been living in the field, day and night. They've been completing missions, sometimes at the drop of a hat, to practice the skills they'll need during expected deployments in Afghanistan.
Lieutenant Colonel Michael Loos is the division's operations officer.
"You know, we've been so busy across the Army, especially the last few years, that we've been training units to the best of our ability and then getting them out the door," he said.
But now, thanks to longer “dwell times,” or time at home, Fort Drum was able to plan its first division-wide training exercise since 9/11. The division still has some soldiers from its 10th Sustainment Brigade deployed to Afghanistan, but all of its three infantry brigades are Fort Drum.
"We've been blessed with having a little bit more dwell time," Loos said. "And with that time comes the opportunity for this type of training."
In Army-speak, Mountain Peak offers an opportunity for “multi-eschelon” training. In layman's terms, what that means is that soldiers and units at all levels get to train together, from the single private training with his weapon, to company-level battle exercises that incorporate helicopter support, to planners and logisticians figuring out how to move thousands of troops, food, water and equipment around Fort Drum's 47,000 acres.
Even the division headquarters staff has left behind their air-conditioned offices for high-tech tents in the field. Loos said the conditions are part of the training.
"When you have to contend with the generators – someone has to go put fuel in them – when you have to contend with, 'Do we have the electrical system set up correctly?' These are all great lessons learned over the last week or so," he said.
The division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team returned from an Afghanistan deployment in March, so many of the Mountain Peak training exercises focus on enabling that brigade to impart lessons learned to the division's two other infantry brigades.
"We call them 'tactics, techniques and procedures' – that they learn from a year's time in Afghanistan," Loos said. "'You shouldn't walk this way, and we recommend you create a formation that moves like this, because of how the enemy fights, because of the enemy tactics, techniques and procedures. You should try to use your weapons system in this manner; it's more effective, because you can't see over a window top if you stand like this.'"
Back at the mock Afghan village, Specialist Scott O'Donnell is braced for casualties. He's a platoon medic, and it's his job to treat and help medevac soldiers who have been mock-injured in the battle.
"They'll say, 'You've got a penetrating chest wound,' and I have to step in and treat them as if they're real, O'Donnell said. "I have to pull out my med pack, pull out whatever items I need to treat that casualty. You know, we tie 'em to a litter and we send 'em out to the bird; bird takes off and flies away."
O'Donnell says the experience has made him more confident in his abilities – and it's made his platoon come together as a team.
Colonel David James Francis is commander of the 10th Combat Aviation Brigade. He says the big idea behind Mountain Peak is simple: stress soldiers out now, so they'll be less stressed later, in a real war zone.
"In this exercise, we're putting leaders, from platoon leaders, ground soldiers, up through our aviation company and battalion commanders through all of those, all of those stressors, so that the first time they see it isn't in combat," he said.