Alaska-based Bushmasters trade extreme cold for Australia’s tropical heat

By MARCUS FICHTL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 17, 2017

SHOALWATER BAY TRAINING AREA, Australia — One hundred and fifty U.S. troops more accustomed to training in Alaska’s extreme cold found themselves trudging Down Under in the tropical heat this week.

The Bushmaster Company, part of the Fort Wainwright-based 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, are in Australia for the monthlong, biennial Talisman Saber drills. More than 33,000 Australian and American troops are participating in the exercise, which has an imaginary foe with capabilities that mirror those of major military powers such as China and Russia.

“Everything’s cold-weather based in Alaska; here it’s totally different. It’s a 180-degree change,” 1st Lt. John Hannon, the company’s executive officer, said during a recent march at Queensland’s rugged Shoalwater Bay Training Area.

The unit usually moves across the battlefield in Stryker armored personnel carriers but didn’t bring the vehicles to Australia, Hannon said.

“We will air assault into the battlefield and block a main avenue of approach,” the 27-year-old Bronx, N.Y.-native said of the training.

During downtime, the Alaska-based troops took photographs of wallabies — smaller versions of kangaroos — and steered clear of deadly snakes and spiders they encountered in the field.

Part of the training involved hitching rides in New Zealand army trucks and Australian Bushmaster Protected Mobility Vehicles. However, the drivers took their time to avoid booby traps placed by opposing forces.

Senior Airman Gilbert Garza, 26, of Houston, a tactical air controller from the 3rd Air Support Operations Squadron who was attached to the company, stayed upbeat during the slow drive through the bush. Spending time with Australian “truckies” made him appreciate the help of his allied partners, he said.

“It’s good to build that coalition bond. They have their methods [of doing things]. You show them ours and see what jives,” he said.

Sgt. Nicholas Dugger, a forward observer from 2nd Battalion, 8th Field Artillery attached to the company said he felt “patriotic,” about working with the Australians.

“It’s really cool to see how their army operates … and how they [learn] things from us,” the 25-year-old from Fort Wainwright said. “They do a pretty solid job.”

After the truck ride, the U.S. troops loaded into U.S., Australian and New Zealand helicopters and flew into a landing zone that was soon under attack from an opposing force armed with light armored vehicles and cannons.

Garza coordinated air support, and within minutes AH-64 Apache attack helicopters were blasting away at the enemy vehicles.

“You feel like you’re in a movie — there’s literally nothing like being an infantryman,” said one of the Bushmaster soldiers, Pfc. Carmen Volpe, 25, of Albany, N.Y.

After Talisman Saber winds up, the Bushmasters will head to Thailand and then Japan for further training, Hannon said.

Stars and Stripes reporter Matthew M. Burke contributed to this report.


Soldiers from Company B, 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division prepare to air assault into battle during Talisman Saber drills at Shoalwater Bay Training Area, Australia, Sunday, July 16, 2017.

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