Hawaii’s jungle walls at their shoulders, soldiers train for war at Lightning Forge

Sgt. Kornisha Sutton, 25, of the 65th Brigade Engineer Battalion, puts up an antenna during the Lightning Forge exercise at Kahuku Training Area, Hawaii, Sunday, July 22, 2018.


By WYATT OLSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 23, 2018

KAHUKU TRAINING AREA, Hawaii — With face grease-painted black and green, Lt. Col. James Hart summed up the task at hand for his soldiers a few days into the Lightning Forge exercise.

“It’s a cat-and-mouse game in continuing to find the enemy, and once you find him, kill him,” Hart, commander of 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, said Sunday while standing beside one of the dirt roads winding through the 9,000-acre Kahuku Training Area in northern Oahu.

The terrain of this rugged, jungle-shrouded training area leaves plenty of places for those mice to hide. The ravines and dirt roads are walled on both sides by steep, soaring mountain slopes.

It’s in this terrain that the 25th Division’s 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team is honing its skills using blanks and simulated munitions in preparation for a rotation this fall to the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La.

“We’re testing ourselves now to get ready for the test,” said Col. Joel Vowell, the division’s deputy commander of operations.

The division’s 2nd and 3rd combat brigades alternate each year as the core unit tested during the annual exercise, but practically the entire 25th is involved in the two-week drills in some way.

“Very few people in the 25th are doing anything else but this,” said Col. Sean Berg, commander of the 196th Infantry Brigade. “They are either supporting it or participating in it.”

The 196th manages the Joint Pacific Multinational Readiness Capability, which employed software and hardware linking the exercise battle space with off-site observers at Schofield Barracks.

The software collects and stores information about the performance and exact whereabouts of each soldier. It’s then used for feedback, even as the exercise progresses.

Lt. Col. Phil Mundweil was in command of the exercise’s “enemy” forces Sunday, defending a mock town built near a Kahuku vista. A full-on assault was expected within the next 24 hours.

“What you probably saw driving in was that on both sides is nothing but trees and bushes, very tight, and then steep mountains on both sides,” said Mundweil, who usually commands a 3rd Brigade battalion.

He and his defenders were taking advantage of the fact that so few routes of attack are passable in this terrain. They had laid obstacles, such as rows of concertina wire, and dug in riflemen in certain routes to funnel, or “canalize,” the advancing force to where they wanted them.

“We’re going to fight them where we want to fight them — or at least create the conditions so we can fight them where we want to fight them,” Mundweil said.

The Hawaii-based Army Reserve 100th Battalion was among the troops he commanded to defend the town.

Joining the 2nd Brigade for training this year is the Indiana National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 151st Infantry Regiment. The Indiana battalion was integrated with the Tropic Lightning’s 2nd Brigade in 2016 under the Army’s new Associated Unit program, which links certain Reserve and National Guard units with active-duty ones.

Vowell said the Indiana battalion serves as a “round-out” for the 2nd Brigade, which has two infantry battalions instead of the usual three associated with brigade combat teams.

“It’s a pretty big deal,” Vowell said of the inclusion of the Indiana troops. “It’s been a growing relationship for about two years now, and we’ve sent people to Camp Atterbury in Indiana to link up to them and do some training on the individual level.”

The Indiana battalion will also join its Hawaiian counterparts for the JRTC rotation this fall, he said.

Twitter: @WyattWOlson

A battery of 105mm howitzers are lined up during Lightning Forge at Kahuku Training Area, Hawaii, Sunday, July 22, 2018.

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