MCGREGOR RANGE COMPLEX, N.M. — Fort Bliss' 4th Brigade has been out in the field in the installation's vast training area for the past two weeks — sweating, camping, training, honing their soldier skills and getting ready for a new Army assignment.
Tanks rolling through the desert, helicopters taking off and landing and soldiers in full combat gear give the 1st Armored Division's largest annual exercise a realistic feel.
About 3,700 soldiers from the 4th Armored Brigade Combat Team, known as the Highlanders, have been participating in the annual Iron Focus exercise, which will end sometime this week. Another 500 troops from other units in the 1st Armored Division and throughout Fort Bliss, White Sands Missile Range, Holloman Air Force Base and elsewhere supported the exercise.
"We are acting as if we are in a combat situation," said 1st Sgt. Thomasine Isler, the senior enlisted soldier with Alpha Company, 123rd Brigade Support Battalion, 4th Brigade.
The three-week-long Iron Focus exercise is preparing the Highlanders for a monthlong rotation at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., later this year.
That will cap off nearly a year of training for the brigade. It is being prepped to be one of seven brigades in the Army to be designated as part of a contingency force that would respond to crises around the world, said 4th Brigade commander Col. Chip Daniels. The Highlanders will also become regionally aligned with Africa Command next year.
During Iron Focus, 4th Brigade is conducting exercises at the company- and battalion-level. At the National Training Center, they will do exercises at the battalion- and brigade-level.
"To really remember how to live in the field, you need to get back out in the field," Daniels said. "I've been out in the field more times than I can count in my career. And there were things I forgot to do. I didn't bring my gloves. I didn't bring this or that."
The 4th Brigade has been following an elaborate scenario that can be adapted and tweaked during the exercise. One nation has been invaded by another nation and the United States has been asked to help the country that has been invaded, Daniels said. Complicating matters, there are residents of the fictitious host country who support the invaders, Daniels said.
This allows his forces to do several different types of operations ranging from army-on-army fighting, called decisive action training, to small-team counter-insurgency. During the past decade of war, the Army has emphasized counter-insurgency, and other core skills have fallen off as a result, Daniels said. This type of training allows his troops to stay sharp at different tasks and be prepared for hybrid threats of the future, he said.
Iron Focus serves as a building block for going to the National Training Center, which Daniels called the "Super Bowl" of Army training.
Soldiers participating at Iron Focus have braved 100-degree temperatures, monsoonal rains, wind, insects, and of course, dirt that gets everywhere.
They have also been dealing with more primitive conditions than they would have in real combat in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. There, during a decade-plus of war, soldiers were able to occupy hard-standing buildings and permanent tents with air-conditioning. They also had many of the creature comforts of home like showers and permanent dining facilities.
During this exercise, soldiers slept in tents — some air conditioned, some not. Others slept out under the stars on cots and some even slept on top of their Humvees. And the only showers available were makeshift units that were created by ingenious soldiers. Most ate MREs — a field ration known as Meals Ready to Eat — twice a day and had just one hot meal a day.
"In order to maintain our skill set and be proficient on the battlefield and accomplish the mission, we have to have survivability," said Maj. Carmen DeMatteo, executive officer for the 123rd Brigade Support Battalion, 4th Brigade. "We have to learn to care for ourselves, how to perform a combat patrol, how to use our weapons, how to exercise the proper techniques to keep our soldiers alive. What happens when you come across a bomb in the middle of the road? How do you react? All that has to be identified and practiced."
DeMatteo is second in command of a battalion that provides logistical support to the rest of the brigade. That includes providing food, water, fuel, ammo and replacement parts, doing maintenance of vehicles and other equipment and giving medical support. When they started the exercise, the Iron Support Battalion came out to a barren area, DeMatteo said. They created their own secure base of operations known as a Brigade Support Area to serve as a hub for providing support to the rest of the Highlanders during the exercise.
As the U.S. draws down its troops in Afghanistan, it is even more important to have these type of realistic exercises, DeMatteo said.
"This is just from my foxhole, my opinion," he said. "But with Iraq and Afghanistan having wound down now, you continue to have a lot of soldiers come into the Army and there is constant turnover. It is more important than ever that we use these training areas to prepare for combat since we no longer have the steady stream of experienced soldiers cycling through Iraq and Afghanistan."
Capt. Charlie Arellano is an El Pasoan who commands Bravo Company, 123rd Brigade Support Battalion. Arellano's unit maintains the brigade's wheeled and tracked vehicles and keeps them going. During the exercise, they also have provided security for the Brigade Support Area, a key strategic area during Iron Focus.
"We need to train like we fight," Arellano said. "We need to do the small things right to allow us to do those big things correctly. Without doing the small things, you can't do the big things."
Arellano said this type of training exercise is the perfect "indoctrination" for what it is like to deploy overseas.
"It is difficult for soldiers to adapt to things like not having their family with them," Arellano said. "A three-week-long experience is perfect for that. It instills that this is a real-world situation and this is the real world. You will be living without your family. You will be living in uncomfortable situations. It provides the opportunity to get guidance and mentorship from personnel who have deployed and show them what it is like in case they encounter that situation."
In addition to practicing their main mission of being the logistical and support unit for the rest of the brigade, the Iron Support Battalion ran through a series of additional training exercises each day. Last week, for instance, they had a mass casualty exercise in which they had to deal with the aftermath of a mock homemade bomb being set off at the guarded entrance point to the Brigade Support Area.
The bomb "destroyed" the command post for Charlie Company, the medical support company, and its treatment tent. First, they had to secure the bomb site with a quick response force before medics could be sent in. They then had to do triage, or give priority to the wounded based on their injuries, treat them outdoors and then call in two Blackhawk helicopters to evacuate the wounded.
"The point of the exercise is to overwhelm our soldiers so they get used to taking on something that seems like it can't be taken on," said Capt. Jeff Johnson, commander of Charlie Company. "Once they come through that situation, they realize that they can actually do it. When that happens, they won't be taken back by a huge number of patients. They will say, 'This is fine. We did this in training.' We will remember our training and do it just like we practiced."
Another Charlie Company, this one with 4th Battalion, 6th Infantry Regiment, spent part of a day doing an exercise in which they needed to seize an enemy-controlled village. Using a combination of tanks, mechanized infantry and some combat engineers who were attached to the unit, they made their way along a 6-mile-long training corridor, engaged the enemy forces partway through the course, used explosives to breach a concertina-wire obstacle and seized one of the mock Middle Eastern villages in the training area.
Capt. Jeff J. Johnson, commander of Charlie Company, 4th Battalion, 6th Infantry Regiment, said it was invaluable training because they were able to get more experience blending infantry and tanks into one working team. Previously, the company had been strictly a tank unit but recently had a platoon of mechanized infantry using Bradley Fighting Vehicles added to it.
"The best way to describe it is you are drinking from a fire hose with the amount of information you are taking in," Johnson said.
Spending several weeks out in the field is the only way to do this type of training, Johnson added.
"You can't do this working 9 to 5," he said. "You have to immerse and go live in an uncomfortable environment. People wonder why we train like this. You have to train to be uncomfortable. If we get that call and our nation's government sends us to a place where there are hostilities or war, that's uncomfortable too."