SSC-Natick Press Release
U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center-Natick
Public Affairs Office
Natick, MA 01760-5012
Contact: Chief, Public Affairs Office
Date: March 18, 2004
Experiencing life as a soldier
Note: This story was written by Rock Woodstock from the U.S. Army Tank-automotive and Armaments Command- Rock Island (TACOM-RI). The Natick Soldier Center Greening Program initially involved only Soldier Systems Center employees but has expanded its reach to Tank-armaments and Automotive Command, Edgewood Chemical and Biological Center and other elements within the Research, Development and Engineering Command. To find out more, contact the Operational Forces Interface Group at firstname.lastname@example.org.
NATICK, Mass. -- During the course of a business day, I receive many e-mail messages as a contracting officer with U.S. Army Tank-automotive and Armaments Command-Rock Island (TACOM-RI). Most messages deal with routine issues, however one recent message was a bit unusual. It sought applicants for something called the "TACOM Greening Program."
The program, sponsored by the TACOM Learning Center and executed by the Natick Soldier Center's (NSRDEC) Operational Forces Interface Group (OFIG), offers selected individuals the opportunity for an all-expense-paid, mid-winter trip to Fort Riley, Kan., to observe an Army unit training in the field.
All that was required was the ability to march three miles with full pack, a short biography, and a brief written statement about why I wanted to go and what I expected to learn from the trip.
A few weeks later, I was surprised to learn I was selected along with four other TACOM employees to participate as embedded observers with a mechanized infantry battalion conducting live-fire exercises during the last week of January 2004.
OFIG would provide all the personal equipment that we would need from head to toe, using the same battle-tested gear used by today's Army worldwide.
The NSRDEC also provided two Soldiers to prepare us for the field and guide us through the experience. Our initial contact was Sgt. 1st Class Sam Newland, the noncommissioned officer-in-charge of the Greening Program.
My fellow travelers were Karen Hackett, a specialist in chemical defensive equipment, and Van Lopez, a technical writer supporting the Bradley vehicle fleet. The other two participants, Merlin Osborn, a range target specialist from TACOM-RI, and Jeff Robertson, an engineer from Anniston Army Depot, would meet us later in the trip.
Sgt. 1st Class Newland greeted us after we landed at the airport in Manhattan, Kan. The jump wings on his chest and Ranger tab on his shoulder indicated that he was well-versed in combat arts. His steady gaze and firm handshake inspired confidence as we introduced ourselves.
After arrival at Fort Riley, Sam explained the events to come for the next few days. We then went for dinner where he answered our questions and got to know our group. He said that while we were there to learn the host unit's mission, our presence gave the unit the opportunity to experience operations with embedded civilian noncombatants.
Sunday morning brought wind, snow and colder temperatures. Our group went to the headquarters of the 1st Battalion, 41st Infantry, 1st Armored Division (1-41).
Sam led us into the auditorium at battalion headquarters and issued each person a large heavy canvas bag, a backpack with frame and a pair of the heaviest boots I had ever seen. We opened our bags and spread ponchos on the floor. Then we placed the contents of the bag on the poncho and conducted an equipment inventory to accept responsibility for the Army property we would use for the next week.
The gear included uniforms, extreme weather clothing and accessories, helmet, sleeping bag and body armor. Sam answered our questions and guided us in the process of converting the one-size-fits-most equipment into gear correctly sized for each of us.
Then we put on our body armor and loaded the remaining equipment into the backpacks and tried it all on for the first time. Between the bulletproof vest and the pack, the total load was about 60 pounds. I felt like a slow-moving target as I lumbered out of the building with my heavy load of personal equipment.
Show and tell
Our group reassembled at 5:30 a.m. the next day, our start delayed by an ice storm the previous night. The delay gave us a chance to play cards and enjoy a Meal, Ready-to-Eat (MRE) for lunch. Some MREs are tasty, and some are not. Every Soldier has his preferences and often barters meal components to customize his diet.
Eventually, two companies of our host battalion assembled and we headed out to the training facility. Upon arrival, our group settled into large open bay barracks and met with our assigned infantry squads. The young men introduced themselves, identified their assignments and demonstrated their weapons. Assault rifles and machine guns are the tools of their trade.
Each soldier took great pride in demonstrating the features of their gear and allowed members of our visiting group to try on their equipment. The combination of night vision goggles and infrared lasers was impressive. Selecting targets and aiming the laser-enhanced weapons in complete darkness was second nature to our hosts, providing a vital advantage during combat.
After dinner, the senior NCOs conducted a briefing that covered the objectives of our training exercise.
My squad was assigned the task of heading the assault to protect the flank of the main attack. We were to engage and destroy the enemy. Upon contact we expected that the enemy would disengage from the fight because of our technical superiority.
If necessary, we were to pursue and deny the enemy the use of the village to regroup and reorganize. Intelligence estimates also indicated that we could expect the enemy to use their chemical weapons in the event that the tide of the battle turned against them.
The following day the skies cleared and the wind picked up, putting our extreme weather gear to the test. The Extreme Cold Weather System garments were very effective and proved invaluable during our time at the Fort Riley range.
Our Bradley Fighting Vehicles (BFVs) started in a haze of diesel fumes as they warmed up in the sub-zero cold. We left the motor pool for the firing range and a practice run of the assault.
The actual live-fire exercise would be conducted by day and at night with night vision goggles. In the interest of safety, our group would take part only in the daytime activities and later watch the night-fire from the range control tower.
Every Soldier we talked to was impressed with the 25mm Bushmaster cannon and how effective it was in urban warfare.
Throughout our visit, we explained to our host unit our role as support and provisioning civilians. We discussed TACOM's mission and the equipment development and fielding process. We listened to and noted individual Soldier concerns and issues regarding equipment design, configuration and condition.
Examination of the vehicles and personal weapons used by 1-41 illustrated the wide disparity in the condition and configuration of equipment in fielded units. Many troops are doing more with less, yet they are being tasked with the same missions as better-equipped units. The close interaction with the host unit gave our team the chance to identify new or unmet equipment requirements.
Sam and Staff Sgt. Raul Lopez, enlisted liaison at OFIG, documented individual equipment issues for discussion back at the NSRDEC. The host unit welcomed the chance to discuss these issues.
Our team also used Soldier discussions to promote Web-based TACOM support available to Army customers. This line of communication is limited by the fact that not all Soldiers have laptop computers and only limited access to command-sponsored computer centers. We established new lines of communication using Army Knowledge Online, an Internet-based forum used by the Army, to follow up on issues identified during discussions.
After a good night's rest and a remarkably satisfying breakfast at the field dining facility, my squad gathered its equipment, loaded up their BFVs and headed to the range for the daytime live-fire exercise.
Even with ear plugs, the sound of the 25mm Bushmaster inside the Bradley is best described as that of a sledgehammer pounding the side of the vehicle hull next to your head. It indicated that we were engaging enemy vehicle targets.
Our assault was a coordinated action with the other squads as we alternately advanced and provided cover for other units. We arrived at the village, a target complex identified by hay bales and mock ruins, and engaged the enemy.
The following morning we thanked our hosts for the experience of a lifetime and returned to our rooms on post. We washed and sorted our personal equipment, returned the loaned gear to Staff Sgt. Lopez and reverted back to our civilian alter egos. Fantasy camp was over; it was time to go home.