YAKIMA — Army artillerymen training in the high desert of Central Washington this week can tell you they’re getting ready for a nine-month deployment to the Middle East.
They’re just not free to tell you exactly where they’re heading — except that it won’t be the familiar combat zones of the last decade.
“It’ll be fun to try something that’s not Iraq or Afghanistan,” said Capt. Greg Perrault, the headquarters battery commander for Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s 5th Battalion, 3rd Field Artillery Regiment.
It’s a new assignment for a unit that spent the past few years clearing roads of mines in Iraq and firing rocket batteries in Afghanistan. When they hit the ground overseas this summer, they’ll work with troops from a partner nation while manning the Army’s High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HiMARS).
They’re on a path set by a sister unit in JBLM’s chief artillery command, the 17th Field Artillery Brigade. The brigade’s headquarters and another JBLM HiMARS battalion are in the Middle East now for the same mission.
But before they leave the South Sound, the 300 soldiers in the 5th Battalion have to show they can handle the mobile rocket launchers they might fire overseas.
That’s why they’re in the desert at the Yakima Training Center working with their weapons and practicing in the field.
“By the end of this exercise, we should have a pretty good team,” said battalion Commander Lt. Col. Ian Bennett, a veteran of two Iraq deployments and one to Afghanistan.
These days, JBLM is sending fewer and fewer soldiers to combat because of the drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. In 2012, more than 12,000 JBLM soldiers deployed to Afghanistan.
This year, JBLM is still sending its Special Operations Forces to the war. It’s also deploying support elements, such as the bulk of its helicopter brigade and a company of explosive ordnance technicians.
But that’s about it. So deployments like this one to an undisclosed location might be the new normal.
The HiMARS fires a pod of six rockets attached to a 5-ton military truck. It’s designed to let soldiers shoot their rockets and then avoid a possible counter-attack by speeding away to a safe hiding place.
They’re used by the Army and Marines in Afghanistan. American troops also have them at military bases in Kuwait and in Qatar. The Royal Jordanian Army, a U.S. ally in the region, has its own HiMARS battalion.
Recently, soldiers in Bennett’s battalion spent a month in the Mojave Desert firing rockets in support of large-scale war games for a JBLM Stryker brigade. They’ve also worked with C-17 jet crews out of McChord Air Field to back up a Special Operations exercise on the California coast.
In Yakima, soldiers practice receiving firing coordinates and then launching test rockets into the desert scrub. When they fire, the rockets peel out of the launcher with a screeching boom, leaving a trail of smoke.
It’s an impressive sight to the dozens of artillery soldiers who watch the firing teams launch their rockets from hundreds of yards away. Several bystanders record each launch on camera phones.
The experience is more intense inside the trucks. Soldiers can feel the blast as a launching rocket shakes their truck.
“It was a little nerve wracking, but it was exciting,” said Staff Sgt. Glen Garrison, 40, who recently joined the battalion for his first assignment in an artillery unit.
He looked to Staff Sgt. Joshua Navarrette for advice. Navarrette’s been in the artillery for his Army career. He served in Afghanistan with the 5th Battalion a year and a half ago, when it deployed to the country’s eastern provinces for a mission firing HiMARS batteries.
“You really helped me out with the troubleshooting,” Garrison told Navarrette.
“It’s always good to have a second set of eyes,” Navarrette replied.
Other troops in the battalion used their time in Yakima to practice tasks that support the HiMARS batteries, such as coordinating resupply missions or patching up wounded soldiers.
To continue the exercise, 1st Sgt. Thomas Fenner had to figure out how to quickly transfer food, fuel and ammunition from one unit to the next.
“We have to balance between the things that take the most time and the things that are most important,” said Fenner, the top noncommissioned officer in the battalion’s 657th Forward Supply Company.
Meanwhile, Lt. Matthew Marshall, the battalion’s chief medic, surprised his soldiers with bloody mannequins.
Marshall shouted “Medic!” and the junior aides came running to find a doll with torn clothes and combat wounds. He described the injuries they’d have to treat as if they were real.
Marshall stepped up the gore with a mixture of fake blood he’d use to get his medics’ attention. His recipe includes food coloring and dish soap. He squeezed it on the mannequins while medics worked.
“That’s a lot of blood. Does he have any blood left in him?” Marshall taunted while two junior medics tried to patch up a mannequin that represented a victim of a mortar blast.
Soldiers in the HiMARS battalion have about a week left in the field before they return to JBLM and square away plans for their deployment. They’ll replace a sister unit in the 17th Fires Brigade, the 1st Battalion, 94th Field Artillery Regiment.
They’re keeping an open mind about a tour of duty that won’t take them to a war zone.
“Each deployment is different,” Navarrette said. “They’re good if you approach them with good thoughts and a good attitude.”