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1st Brigade gets taste of 'how life is' at JRTC

FORT POLK, La.— Soldiers with Fort Bliss’ 1st Brigade got a dose of what combat feels like during a month-long training rotation at the Joint Readiness Training Center.

Ready First soldiers dealt with a slew of adversity and hardships that they had to persevere and work their way through – cold wet, weather; wooded, swampy terrain which was vastly different than what they are used to; lack of sleep; and a tough, adaptable enemy.

“I love it,” said Spc. Kyle Kracht, a gunner with Bravo Battery, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Field Artillery Regiment.

“You can talk all day in the motor pool about how things are, but until you get out here and actually do it, you don’t know how life is,” said Kracht, who is from Phoenix.

About 3,000 soldiers from Fort Bliss’ 1st Brigade spent January at JRTC, one of three combat training centers the Army operates. They were joined by another 400 soldiers from Fort Bliss’ 2nd Battalion, 501st Aviation Regiment and other units from the 1st Armored Division Combat Aviation Brigade.

At JRTC, they underwent a stiff test by spending two weeks in the training area known as The Box. There, they faced off with Fort Polk’s 1st Battalion, 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment (Airborne), which serves as the opposing force and tests visiting units 10 times a year. The idea is to test all aspects of a brigade combat team out in the field against a capable opponent.

Sgt. Christopher Loera of Phoenix is a petroleum supply specialist with Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 501st Aviation Regiment. Loera has deployed four times during his 10-year Army career — to Iraq once, Afghanistan twice and to Liberia. He said this rotation provided "very effective" training.

“Just the obstacles you have to go through, it’s good experience for the younger soldiers” who haven’t deployed before, Loera said.

The training also builds teamwork and camaraderie, he added.

Command Sgt. Maj. John Kolodgy is the senior enlisted soldier for the 2-501st Aviation Regiment, which headed up the aviation task force during the rotation. Kolodgy’s unit spent about six months in Liberia in West Africa from fall 2014 to early spring 2015 where it provided air support during the effort to contain the Ebola virus.

“Instead of being out in the high altitude of El Paso, we are here in the lowlands (of Louisiana),” said Kolodgy, who calls Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., his home. “We are dealing with swamps. We are dealing with wet feet, cold weather, that soldiers aren’t necessarily used to. They are learning quickly, but some of those crafts like changing socks out twice a day to keep your feet warm, that kind of stuff, they are muddling through right now. It’s a good training experience.”

Kolodgy said going to JRTC is a good reminder of what it takes to be “expeditionary” and build up a base of operations where nothing existed before, just like they did in Africa.

“We will take all those valuable lessons here --‘Oh, we forgot that stuff’ — and bring it back to Fort Bliss with us,” Kolodgy said.

Lt. Col. John Sandor took command of 2nd Battalion, 3rd Field Artillery Regiment in August but previously he was an observer-coach-trainer at Fort Irwin, Calif., before coming to Fort Bliss.

Sandor said the training his soldiers experienced at Fort Polk forced them to test different skills and be more flexible.

“It tests our ability to do multiple sets of missions and it gives them a different environment in which to operate,” said Sandor, of West Creek, N.J.

The rotation also did more than just train individual soldiers to fight better and be more adaptable. It also helped to create more of a team, he said.

Going to a place like JRTC “also trains our staff, how you work with higher headquarters, how you work all those pieces to make the whole organization, from individual units into a team effort,” Sandor said.

Spc. Michael Cunningham, of Dallas, is a team leader with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment.

Cunningham called the training they received stressful and tiring but worthwhile.

“You have to push through and do the best you can,” Cunningham said. “You can’t give up. If you do, your guys will give up and quit. You have to lead by example and keep on pushing.”

Sgt. Dallas Reynolds is a sniper team leader with Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 41st Infantry Regiment.

The condensed, wooded nature of the training area at Fort Polk puts a premium on doing dismounted infantry operations and looking out for ambushes, said Reynolds, who is from Savannah, Ga.

“It’s definitely putting more chaos into the mix,” Reynolds said. “It’s a strain but we are working through it and getting the job done.

“It is a gut check for everyone,” Reynolds said.

Almost everyone from the rotation was scheduled to return home to Fort Bliss by this past Sunday.

David Burge may be reached at 546-6126; dburge@elpasotimes.com; @dburge1962 on Twitter.

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©2016 the El Paso Times (El Paso, Texas) Visit the El Paso Times (El Paso, Texas) at www.elpasotimes.com Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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