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Fort Bragg's 18th Fires Brigade fired its last Howitzer

A rocket leaves a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System as part of a certification event at Yakima Training Center, Wash., on May 6, 2010.

Fort Bragg's artillery community is changing.

The 18th Fires Brigade fired its last rounds from a M777 Howitzer cannon on Wednesday, marking the final phase of the unit's transition to the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, better known as HiMARS.

The 3rd Battalion, 321st Field Artillery Regiment fired 50 155 mm rounds from three howitzers before a ceremonial last round, marked with the unit name and date, was fired into Fort Bragg's vast training areas.

"It's not a sad day at all," said Lt. Col. Joseph M. O'Callaghan, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 321st Field Artillery. "It's part of the evolution of the Army."

The battalion will start fielding HiMARS this fall. Its sister unit, 3rd Battalion, 27th Field Artillery Regiment, was one of the first Army units to field the rocket system in 1998.

The changes within the 18th Fires Brigade - which is comprised of the two field artillery battalions and the 188th Brigade Support Battalion - are part of a larger Army transformation that has ongoing effects on Fort Bragg.

Earlier this year, the 18th Fires Brigade, part of the 82nd Airborne Division, moved howitzer batteries into the 82nd Airborne's brigade combat teams.

That puts firepower at the tactical level, said Col. Stephen G. Smith, commander of the 18th Fires Brigade.

As part of the ongoing transformations, the 82nd Airborne will reform the Division Artillery, which was deactivated as part of 2006 Army restructuring, Smith said, stressing that the Army wasn't replacing the howitzer, but instead better organizing the cannons.

The transformation also will undo one other 2006 change. The 18th Fires Brigade will move out from the 82nd Airborne and be placed back under the 18th Airborne Corps.

With the transition to the HiMARS, Smith said the 18th Fires Brigade will pack a bigger punch with a longer reach.

A single HiMARS can fire six 500-pound rockets more than 150 miles in quick succession, he said. The M777 Howitzer can only fire one 50-pound round at a time and can cover a 14 mile radius.

The brigade will only use training ammunition on Fort Bragg, meaning 18th Fires Brigade training will be noticeably quieter, he said.

"The United States Army continues to be the strongest, innovative, and lethal force in the world," said Smith. "18th Fires Brigade will continue to follow suit, as we transition to a leaner and more agile unit. We will shape a future force that has the capability to be more flexible and versatile to continue to take on any mission that is asked of us."

O'Callaghan said many soldiers will move with the howitzers, while some will retrain to use the HiMARS.

The 3rd Battalion, 321st Field Artillery Regiment will be able to rely on its sister battalion's expertise, he said.

The 3rd Battalion, 27th Field Artillery Regiment was not only among the first to use the HiMARS, it was the first to use the system in combat and has repeatedly supported conventional and special operations forces.

"We're simply the next to fall in line," he said.

The change to a newer system isn't unusual for the field artillery.

Today's howitzers bare little resemblance to those used by retired Command Sgt. Maj. Antonio Guerrero in Vietnam and Korea.

Guerrero, the 321st Field Artillery Regiment's honorary command sergeant major, witnessed the final firing of the M777. Guerrero said he was baffled and impressed by the newer, computerized HiMARS on display.

After nearly 100 years of history, the HiMARS will be the third type of artillery used by the regiment, which was formed to fight in World War I with 75 mm Pack Howitzers.

Guerrero said he fired 105 mm ammunition during his career.

O'Callaghan said the latest change, away from 155 mm ammunition, was a significant moment in the unit's history.

"It is history," he told the soldiers of C Battery, who fired the final rounds. "We're bidding goodbye to an era."

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