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Spc. Stuart Cook, right, and Spc. Daniel Tjalsma say that every soldier coming back from Iraq has something to teach those who've never been there.
Spc. Stuart Cook, right, and Spc. Daniel Tjalsma say that every soldier coming back from Iraq has something to teach those who've never been there. (Terry Boyd / S&S)
Spc. Stuart Cook, right, and Spc. Daniel Tjalsma say that every soldier coming back from Iraq has something to teach those who've never been there.
Spc. Stuart Cook, right, and Spc. Daniel Tjalsma say that every soldier coming back from Iraq has something to teach those who've never been there. (Terry Boyd / S&S)
Sgt. Andrew Jackson said fighting counterinsurgency is about the flexibility of each soldier learning not only his job, but the jobs of his teammates and those of other soldiers outside the armor fraternity. "This is a thinking man's army, now."
Sgt. Andrew Jackson said fighting counterinsurgency is about the flexibility of each soldier learning not only his job, but the jobs of his teammates and those of other soldiers outside the armor fraternity. "This is a thinking man's army, now." (Terry Boyd / S&S)

GRAFENWÖHR TRAINING AREA, Germany — When 1st Armored Division troops went to Iraq the first time, they were trained mainly for one thing — conventional warfare.

Problem was, the conventional ground war lasted 42 days, with only one unit — Company C, 2nd Battalion, 6th Infantry Regiment — actually doing any fighting.

After that, conventional training was little help as soldiers spent much of their 15 months racing to keep up with an ever-changing mix of peacekeeping, nation-building and fighting the insurgency.

As the division gets ready for its second deployment to Iraq, soldiers and officers vow things are going to be different this time around.

In two years, the Army — or at least the 1st AD — has transformed into a full-spectrum force, every day rewriting the book on counterinsurgency warfare.

“It’s going to be a three-dimensional fight; top, bottom and sides,” Col. Michael A. Ryan, 1st AD assistant division commander–maneuver, said during a Wednesday interview at Grafenwöhr Training Area.

“It’s about like fighting in space ... not on one plane; on an X, Y, Z axis.”

This time around, 1st AD troops down to the last support soldier have trained to think, deliberate and fight, Ryan and others said.

With the 1st AD’s Friedberg-based 1st Brigade currently at Grafenwöhr and Hohenfels, it’s no longer just gunnery and maneuver training.

After finishing one of the tank tables — an eight-step series of gunnery and maneuver tests — at Grafenwöhr, crews jump out of their tanks, grab small arms and shoot the scout gunnery tables.

Five years ago, if you told a tank commander he was going to give up his tank and turn into a nimble, invisible, lightly armed scout, “he’d look at you like you were crazy,” Ryan said.

Where convoys once raced away from roadside bomb attacks, soldiers now drill in scenarios where everyone is expected to be ready for coordinated firing and maneuvering as part of a convoy gunnery live fire program preparing soldiers and crews for transport operations.

“Now, as a consequence of attacking a convoy, you might die. In fact, you will die,” Ryan said. “From top to bottom, left to right, our soldiers are carnivores.”

To stay ahead of the enemy, tactics keep evolving. Training not only includes different flavors of insurgents, foreign and domestic, but also mayors changing allegiances and taking their villages with them, Ryan said.

Spc. Nathan Lease remembers going to Iraq right out of basic training.

“The only realistic training (inexperienced soldiers) can get is the real thing,” Lease said.

But at least now, preparation is far more complete. “Before, I had no idea how to set up a [traffic check point],” Lease said. “Now, every single one of us has done [that] over and over and over again.”

“I felt more like an infantryman than a tanker — clearing rooms; setting up [traffic checkpoints]. I have to know that, and everything a tanker knows,” said Spc. Stuart Cook, 21, from Stillwater, Okla.

Today’s soldier “is using more parts of his brains than he did before,” Ryan said, making profoundly important decisions knowing he won’t have senior leaders “holding his hand.”

“It’s a huge responsibility on the shoulders of soldiers all the way down to squad leaders,” he said.

An effective soldier is more like a New York cop who completely understands his Bronx neighborhood, but is flexible enough to work Queens, and can even deal with Los Angeles if he has to, Ryan said.

It’s all about flexibility, said Sgt. Andrew Jackson, a 27-year-old New Yorker who’s the gunner in his battalion commander’s tank. ”This is a thinking man’s army, now,” Jackson said.

In Counter-Insurgency Operations, or COIN, at Hohenfels, conventional maneuvering blends in with scenarios in which soldiers convert good vibes from “villagers” into support when they behave properly, or hostility when their judgment fails them.

Observers chart the progress, or lack thereof, with a tricolor chart, red on the left, yellow in the middle and green on the right.

When oil and gas leaking from Bradley fighting vehicles “kill” sheep, the marker slides to red, said Staff Sgt. Jason Clelland, battalion communications noncommissioned officer in charge for the 1st Brigade’s 1st Battalion, 37th Armored Regiment.

To move it to green, his unit had to go to the “farmer” and not only pay for the dead sheep, but give a formal apology and present him with a new one.

The amazing thing is that most insights into dealing with the counterinsurgency flows up from troops in the field, not down from big brains at war colleges or think tanks.

To some degree, young soldiers on their first deployment are looking to combat veterans such as Clelland and Jackson.

Spc. Daniel Tjalsma, 21, from Brea, Calif., said he wants to hear “the cool stories.”

But in the cool stories comes hard-learned combat wisdom “from keeping your 240 (machine gun) clean to repairing track,” Cook said.

“Everybody comes back from downrange with something they can teach us.”

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