JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON -- The old Army saw is “If it ain’t rainin’, we ain’t trainin’.”
Accordingly, the sappers of Company A, 6th Brigade Engineer Battalion (Airborne), 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, U.S. Army Alaska, conducted team-level training Aug. 10 and 11 on the Infantry Squad Battle Course at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska in an intermittent drizzle under leaden skies.
The rain and mud persisted into the live-fire portion of the exercise Aug. 12, when the sun finally broke through and illuminated the team maneuvering on the objective.
“Today we’re doing a team live-fire exercise, so we’re testing our team leaders and making sure they’re competent with battle drills as they guide their teams through this course,” said Sgt. Zachary Suratt, a squad leader and native of Cleburne, Texas.
The teams were working on two tasks – reacting to enemy contact, and seizing an objective. These are critical tasks for the Soldiers.
“We are task force multipliers as combat engineers,” Suratt said. “Essentially we are problem-solvers for infantry commanders. When we jump in, whether it’s training or not, every Soldier down to the lowest level needs to know how to accomplish the mission. The average team we’re training today is five Soldiers – four and a team leader – and we’re running a whole platoon through today.”
Having Soldiers work in small teams not only mitigated the risk of spreading COVID-19, it fulfilled an important annual training requirement.
“Every year we need to test out team leaders and squad leaders so this leads up to that squad-level training,” Suratt explained. “We are wearing masks. If we are eating, we are at least 6 feet apart, and we’ve got lots of hand sanitizer. Those three things are playing a key part in our training.
“If we have a Soldier that has been around someone who tested positive for COVID-19, has symptoms, or was exposed but is asymptomatic, they aren’t out here – and that protects the force. Everyone we have training today is healthy.”
The battalion regularly trains on not only their engineer tasks, but standard Soldier tasks, to ensure their capability to deploy anywhere on short notice.
“Yearly we do our team live-fires, our squad live-fires, a Joint Readiness Training Center rotation to Fort Polk, La., and various training missions throughout Alaska,” Suratt said. “We also recently did a no-notice jump into Guam demonstrating our capabilities. …Being a Global Response Force, worldwide deployable within 24 hours, we are always ready to go, and when you get that call you don’t have time to train up. You’re going with the knowledge you have, so that’s why we always train hard.”
“Combat engineers are called upon to perform a vast array of missions,” said 1st Lt. Liam Fulton, a platoon leader and native of Heidelberg, Germany. “We’re designed to train and assemble as infantry at times, but we also bring a certain technical expertise to the battlefield, especially in the realm of demolitions and breaching capabilities. This training is important for the sake of readiness. We go from team and squad live-fire to platoon live-fire after that; each one is a stepping stone for readiness.”
Given that the Soldiers were working with live rounds, safety is critical, Fulton said.
“We’ve been doing the crawl-walk-run model of training, so we had a walk-through and talk-through first, then we did an iteration using blank rounds, and now we’re going through with live rounds,” he said.
There is more to this kind of training than meets the eye; it may look like simply running and shooting, but there are many other points the noncommissioned officers are looking for, Suratt said.
“I’m grading the teams today,” he explained. “Safety is the priority. We’re also evaluating movement in general, situational awareness, and muzzle awareness. We want them to have their ‘heads on a swivel’, or pulling security at all times, and bold flanking maneuvers. In the building, we’re also looking for Soldiers following standard operating procedure for room clearing.
“We’re looking for Soldiers properly sending [situation reports], and [ammunition, casualty and equipment] reports which give commanders an idea of what assets they have on the ground – how much ammunition they have, if they have sustained any casualties, and what their equipment status is after they have assaulted and captured an objective.”
To a new Soldier, it can be a dizzying amount to remember, but training for the complexity of battle, keeping in mind that “Shoot, move, and communicate” means not only talking to fellow Soldiers in the area but to the rest of the unit and to leadership, builds strong foundations of capability Army-wide.
“NCOs have been called the backbone of the Army,” Fulton said. “The team leaders we have now that are running through this live-fire are going to be the squad leaders of tomorrow. They’re going to be the platoon sergeants, first sergeants, and command sergeants major of the future.”
One of those future squad leaders is Spc. Edward Jones, a native of Washington, D.C., a team leader who was going through the course.
“I’m a team leader in charge of two other Soldiers,” Jones said. “Over the course of this exercise I’m looking for those basic Soldier tasks like proper spacing, proper maneuvering, being discreet but swift, and above all safety precautions.
“Safety is definitely priority number one, because we have a lot of new Soldiers who will really gain value from this training. It’s not every day we get to come out to the field and do exercises like this, and it’s definitely beneficial to our people who haven’t done it before and who are hands-on learners to get a solid feel and grasp of how to do this the proper way – safely.”
Practice makes perfect, and getting time on the range doing the tasks correctly ensures JBER Soldiers, when called upon, can execute any mission necessary.
“When we deploy we’re going to need our people to do it the right way,” Suratt said. “We train to standard, and train the way we fight. Today we’re conducting training the right way, to standard, safely, so when these Soldiers do go downrange they aren’t taking any unnecessary risks in combat.
“Good NCOs maybe be disliked a bit because they train their Soldiers hard, but their Soldiers are the people to their left and right; their brothers – the people they trust. If I train a Soldier to standard, I can trust that I can take them downrange, and they’ll bring us back.”
JBER’s strategic position in Alaska means they are primed to respond primarily to contingencies in the Indo-Asia-Pacific area of operations, but the 4-25 has spent plenty of time previously in Iraq and Afghanistan, and frequently trains in the Arctic, preparing for potential missions there.
“Our mission as a brigade is unique,” Fulton said. “We have an arctic warfighting function, we’re an airborne unit – the only one in the Pacific – and because of that we need to be ready at any point in time. This training is critical to being ready as an airborne brigade.
“Our Soldiers have been doing a great job. Every single run has been better than the last. It’s been great to see those improvements happen, to see those skills be learned and refined. At the end of the day, they’re better than they were the day before.”
As Fulton said, the 4-25’s ongoing effort to ensure troops are disciplined, tactically proficient, and ready to go at any time ensures future generations of Soldiers will be prepared and led well.