Unit bound for Afghanistan drills like never before
GRAFENWÖHR, Germany — Seated in folding chairs inside a small, dingy room, the soldiers kept their hands on their knees as they eyed a pair of cutout targets across a wooden table.
At a trainer’s command, each man reached to his sidearm, unholstered and fired several times into one of the targets, a cutout of a gun-wielding bearded man that swayed with each blow. It was a scenario run throughout the day, but with variations — soldiers fired while moving, with their weak arm and while lying on the floor as if wounded.
“It’s almost been about two weeks of shooting, nonstop shooting,” said 1st Lt. Derrick DeJon, a signal officer. “I’ve never fired so many rounds before in my Army career.”
Last year’s uptick in attacks by Afghan security forces against coalition or other Afghan troops — so-called insider attacks — spurred changes in training for servicemembers heading downrange, from a new emphasis on cultural sensitivity to courses on identifying suspicious behavior and the tasking of an armed “guardian angel” to monitor all meetings between Americans and Afghans.
Yet when a cavalry squadron here decided to conduct its own exercise before deployment, it moved to a nearby shoot house for weapons training. The exercise underlines what commanders see as an elevated risk as their mission moves from combat operations to an advisory role.
“Your two threats are your counter-IED piece and then your insider threat, and that’s 90 percent of what’s going on,” said Maj. Tim Peterman, operations officer for 3rd Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Regiment, using the common acronym for improvised explosive devices.
Insider attacks against coalition members spiked last year with 62 killed in 46 attacks; 35 of them Americans. Eight coalition members and two civilians have been killed this year, according to an Associated Press count.
For 3rd Squadron, a battalion-size combat unit preparing for a nine-month tour in Kandahar province, one death in particular hit close to home. Lt. Col. Todd Clark, a former commander of Lightning Troop, one of the unit’s companies, was killed in June when an Afghan soldier opened fire on American trainers after an argument.
Soldiers on the squadron’s adviser teams — groups of nearly a dozen officers and noncommissioned officers who work closely with Afghan officers — know they may be just as vulnerable. Advisers spend much of their time on the Afghan side of shared bases, where they have little control over security measures and are less likely to have their primary weapon — for most, an M-4 assault rifle — on hand.
“Obviously, they would be in what we call a passive posture,” Peterman said. “And they would have to go from that to their secondary weapon [sidearm] immediately.”
As the last of six squadrons in the regiment to deploy, the unit had more time than most to consider how it might train for such a scenario. The result was two weeks of exercises with little resemblance to an average Army exercise.
Trainers swapped the classroom for the range, bringing together the adviser teams with the security platoons responsible for their movement and safety, and having both qualify with the M-4 and M-9, the latter a 9 mm semiautomatic pistol carried as a sidearm.
Soldiers from the security platoons then worked on guardian angel positioning in tight rooms. They practiced firing on wooden targets in the rooms, where they were forced to immediately distinguish between cutouts representing the advisers and those representing the threat.
Trainers also emphasized the M-9 in the shoot house, a rarity in Army training. Members of the adviser teams in particular focused on the sidearm, practicing getting to their holsters quickly, seeking cover and firing if wounded in their dominant arm or in the legs.
The exercises ended with a clearance drill, in which guardian angels and advisers practiced working together to get out of a building with multiple enemy targets.
First Lt. Joey Ivanov, a former Special Forces team member now leading a platoon in Lightning Troop, organized and guided the live-fire days, including the shoot-house drills.
“This is giving these guys the lethal tools of the trade to defend each other in the event they have an insider threat while being very vulnerable, as in not being stacked in numbers,” he said.
During six days of firing, about 80 soldiers in training used more than 95,000 rounds for the M-4 and nearly 70,000 rounds of 9mm ammunition, the latter amount being three times the squadron’s annual allocation, according to Peterman.
Most soldiers said they had never trained in so many firing positions, or with the same volume of ammunition. DeJon called it “some of the most intense shooting in my life.”
Even those with longer careers and more range time said they were surprised.
“Ten years in the Army and I haven’t even been able to come out here and shoot like this,” Staff Sgt. David Alberg, an infantryman, said.
For Peterman, who will also serve as an adviser team leader during the deployment, the training was invaluable not only for technique, but for peace of mind.
“Again, it’s worst-case scenario, but if it saves one life, then it’s more than worth it,” he said.