Airborne artillerymen go head-to-head in competition

By DREW BROOKS | The Fayetteville Observer, N.C. (Tribune News Service) | Published: December 17, 2017

All eyes were on the team of soldiers sliding the shell into a M119 howitzer at a Fort Bragg artillery range.

With a few minor adjustments, the soldiers – from A Battery, 2nd Battalion, 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment – had their target lined up, the barrel of their gun set low and nearly straight ahead.

When the soldiers raised their hands to their ears, it was a cue for spectators to do the same. For a moment, all was quiet.

Then, with a simple hand signal, the silence was violently interrupted.

Smoke billowed from the howitzer. A projectile, barely visible as it left the gun, hurtled ahead. And in the distance, a bright white flash was soon followed by a satisfying thump.

“Nailed it,” one onlooker said, as soldiers cheered the direct hit.

Typically, artillery is an indirect weapon. Those who fire a howitzer may never see the impact of their rounds, relying instead on forward observers to let them know if they were on the mark.

But on Tuesday, as part of the 82nd Airborne Division Artillery’s Best of the Best competition, soldiers were tasked to use their howitzers against targets a few hundred yards away.

Sgt. 1st Class John Paul Keller, a master gunner with DIVARTY, said the direct fire event was not something soldiers are often asked to perform. The technique would likely only be used as a sort of last resort – a defensive measure against oncoming enemy armor.

“This is a lot of these guys’ first time shooting this live,” he said. “They’re really looking forward to this.”

The direct fire lane was one of several twists to the annual Best of the Best event, which aims to find the best artillerymen in the 82nd Airborne Division.

This year’s competition, which ended Wednesday, challenged soldiers in ways they didn’t expect, according to those paratroopers who competed. It was a true test of their ability to think on their feet and leverage their knowledge and experience.

Spread across three days, the Best of the Best competition included a physical fitness test, written exams and military occupational specialty-specific tasks meant to help narrow the field. It ended with a 12-mile ruck march in freezing weather at Sicily Drop Zone.

Afterward, leaders announced the winners in numerous categories, including best fire support specialist section, best fire direction center, best M119A3 howitzer section, best M777A3 howitzer section, best firefinder radar section and the best “Big 3” – which includes the platoon leader, platoon sergeant and gunnery sergeant.

The competition pit two of the three artillery battalions in the 82nd Airborne Division – representing the 2nd and 3rd Brigade Combat Teams – against one another. The third battalion, 3rd Battalion, 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment, is deployed to Kosovo and Afghanistan with the 1st Brigade Combat Team.

Meanwhile, soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment had the added wrinkle of having recently returned from their own deployment, serving in Iraq and Syria with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team.

Staff Sgt. Sean Wesley, a section sergeant with the battalion’s A Battery, said the competition follows a week-long training event in which the soldiers recertified their artillery skills.

At first, he said, the soldiers had a little bit of nerves as they prepared to go head-to-head against their sister battery in 1st Battalion, 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment.

“But we got in a good groove,” Wesley said.

Seeing rounds impact their targets, and hearing that steel on steel collision, was the best thing the soldiers had heard in some time, he added.

“Oh, it was incredible,” Wesley said. “Cathartic… More than really words can express.”

Through the second day of the competition, Wesley said he believed the two batteries were neck and neck.

“That’s a good thing,” he said. “It shows we’re all on that higher level.”

Keller, who oversaw portions of the event for the howitzer crews, is a two-time Best of the Best winner in the “Big 3” category, being part of winning teams in 2014 and 2015.

The competition is great for esprit de corps, he said. But it also helps keep the traditions and history of the 82nd Airborne’s big guns alive.

More importantly, Keller said, the competition was great training, fueled in part by a desire for bragging rights.

“Guys really get pumped up to come out here and compete against each other,” he said. “But everybody is getting something out of it.”

Ultimately, Keller said, the goal was for soldiers to improve, to push each other, but also to have fun.

On Wednesday, however, few of the soldiers were describing the pre-dawn ruck with that particular three-letter word.

Starting at 3 a.m., the roughly 100 Best of the Best competitors set out on Sicily Drop Zone, destined to return several hours later.

It was pitch black for most of the run, soldiers said. And the 27 degree temperatures felt even worse with the added wind chill. Frozen canteens were a common issue.

“It was cold,” said Sgt. Daniel Lewis, competing with the fire direction center from C Battery, 1st Battalion, 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment. “But we got through it. We didn’t quit.”

Lewis said Best of the Best organizers did all they could to throw competitors off a step or two. The weather added to that difficulty.

“They threw us a lot of curveballs,” he said. “But I think we did great.”

Pfc. Johnson Coleman, a firefinder radar operator with 1st Battalion, 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment, said his section stuck together throughout the final ruck.

“We were there to motivate each other,” he said.

Coleman’s job entails tracking and pinpointing the origin of enemy indirect fire. He said the competition helped build camaraderie within his section and across DIVARTY.

“We can kind of see how everyone does things,” he said. “In the long run, it’ll help us for sure.”

First Lt. Joyce Johnson, competing with the fire direction center from C Battery, 2nd Battalion, 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment, said the competition included “graduate level” skills. Soldiers couldn’t simply react to each event, she said. Instead, they had to stop and think through the unique problems they were asked to solve, including several scenarios the soldiers had never seen before.

In Iraq, Johnson said, the fire direction center helped direct 2,500 rounds onto ISIS positions in and around Mosul. That experience, she said, likely helped them when it came to the Best of the Best.

“They know how to work together as a section,” Johnson said. “They process everything so much faster.”

Johnson said the paratroopers were hoping for a bit of bragging rights.

“We’re artillerymen,” she said. “We always want to compete. We always want to be better than the next guy.”

But more importantly, Johnson said, the soldiers would leave the competition better prepared for missions.

First Lt. Jacob Page, with a fire support team from 1st Battalion, 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment, agreed.

“It is awesome to get out and represent Loyalty,” he said, using his battalion’s nickname. “We all push each other. It’s excellent training value.”

Page said he wanted to win the competition to leave his mark on the battalion. He said Best of the Best winners would go down in the history of the event.

“You want to make your impact in something great,” he said.

Page said every soldier competing would come away better able to serve his unit.

“We’re not just building skills. We’re building character,” he said. “We’re making great paratroopers.”


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