FORT IRWIN, CALIF. — Spending a month in the Mojave Desert without a shower or a flushing toilet is nobody’s idea of a good time. But for the Army, there are few better places to put soldiers through the wringer of a demanding, combat-like experience.
“There’s no better training in the world,” than what the Army offers at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., said Joint Base Lewis-McChord senior Army officer Lt. Gen. Stephen Lanza.
The center is one of three large-scale Army training areas in the world where thousands of soldiers at a time can practice maneuvers. The others are in Louisiana and in Germany.
All three are moving to so-called “decisive action” training in which a heavily armed Army brigade consisting of 4,000 or more soldiers goes toe to toe with a similar force. At Fort Irwin, that foe is the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, which has the advantage of knowing the rugged terrain better than visiting units.
Lewis-McChord’s 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division was the first Army unit from Washington state to get that challenge against an armored enemy at the National Training Center when it traveled there in January.
It was an expensive exercise, costing $22 million for transportation, general supplies, fuel and water. That sum does not include money the Army spent on ammunition or food.
At the ground level, a rotation at the training center represents a chance for junior soldiers to get experience with weapons they cannot fire at their home stations, while carrying out complex drills that test their limits.
“It’s a blast. This is what I joined for,” said Spc. Rich Calbri of the brigade’s cavalry squadron. He’s in an anti-tank unit that fired its Stryker-mounted missiles for the first time in three years during last month’s exercise.
Another young soldier, Spc. Ryker Taylor, hustled around the desert to practice hiking up mountains without being seen by enemy observers.
“I like to do stuff. I like to have fun,” he said, contrasting his time in the field with the office work soldiers often have to do at home.
In one exercise, Taylor, 21, grabbed his platoon’s javelin missile launcher to take a shot at one of the enemy helicopters hounding his team. It’s a shoulder-fired weapon that represents a Stryker unit’s best shot against another armored vehicle.
It misfired through no fault of his, but his peers were pumped up for him just the same.
“Good (expletive)!” Pfc. Verek Nixon shouted at Taylor when he returned to their Stryker.
“It wouldn’t shoot,” Taylor replied.
“But what if it did?” Nixon asked.
“I would have shot a (expletive) helicopter!” Taylor said, beaming.
Up the chain of command, an NTC rotation gives officers and senior enlisted soldiers opportunities to see how their units move together on the largest scale. Maj. Adam Latham, the cavalry squadron’s executive officer, called them “grand maneuvers,” like the ones young officers read about in military histories.
“I love it. There is a lot of skill and craft that goes into fighting a near-peer competitor,” such as the armored force the 3rd Brigade encountered last month.
It’s also extremely tiring. An exercise at NTC is intended to be at least as stressful as actual combat.
Through the night, soldiers traded guard shifts. Most of them piled into Strykers to sleep. Some stayed outdoors in their sleeping bags in icy January temperatures.
For the most part, they ate packaged MREs, meals ready to eat. A Lewis-McChord logistics unit built a mobile kitchen that brought occasional hot meals to troops in the field.
Soldiers did not have much down time. They were prohibited from bringing their cellphones to keep in touch with family.
“Extremely high tempo. There’s never a moment when there isn’t something else you should be doing,” said Capt. Chris Reese, 28, of the cavalry squadron.
“NTC is kicking my” butt, said Spc. Jusup McChesney, an intelligence soldier in the cavalry squadron. “It’s go, go, go.”
That’s the desired pace for a Stryker brigade that’s off the Army’s deployment roster for the first time since 2003.
“It’s important to keep up the intensity because you don’t want complacency to set in,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Sean Mayo, the senior enlisted soldier in the cavalry squadron.