Mortar, medic units fine tune tactics with training program
CAMP SHELBY, Miss. (AP) — Army National Guard Reserve soldiers from throughout Louisiana braved record-high temperatures in July and donned combat gear and battled in the woods as they took part in simulated military exercises as part of the eXportable Combat Training Capability program, known simply as XCTC, at Camp Shelby just outside of Hattiesburg, Miss.
The 21-day XCTC training program involved members of the 256th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, who took part in various activities designed to develop platoon proficiency in coordination with First Army, their term for the regular U.S. Army. The training program is the next step in the Louisiana Army National Guard’s preparation for possible deployment in 2020. Exercises included ambushes, company attack, platoon movement to contact, recon missions and other missions against an enemy composed of veteran active duty Army soldiers from Ft. Polk. Next summer, the Louisiana National Guard Soldiers will take the next step by participating in a Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) rotation at Fort Polk.
To get the most in-depth understanding of how the training works at the various unit levels, Gannett Louisiana journalists embedded with local soldiers. We ate, slept and went on missions with the soldiers as the Louisiana National Guard gave us full access to the training environment. Here are some of the stories from the various components that make up the Louisiana National Guard:
Infantry units provide the boots on the ground troops needed in battle. Captain Kenrick Cormier, commander of 3rd Battalion, Bravo Company, based at Camp Beauregard in Pineville, explained that in addition to the highly-trained infantry soldiers in his unit, he likes to use the other assets available to him to help clear the way to minimize the fighting his soldiers will have to do in the field.
One of those assets at Cpt. Cormier’s disposal is mortar fire. The company has a 60 mm mortar cannon in the field with them. They also have access to additional mortar support from 80 mm and 120 mm cannons stationed with the battalion mortar platoon.
Helping direct the fire are forward observers who pinpoint the targets and then call in the coordinates to the fireteam. Specialist Brandon Lowery of Pineville is the forward observer assigned to 3rd Battalion Bravo Company. “Basically, I get on the radio and tell them where to shoot,” Lowery said of his job.
Lowery said he will mark his four-year anniversary with the Louisiana National Guard in December. When he joined, he wasn’t sure what job he wanted in the military. “My recruiter was a forward observer and he told me all about it and it sounded good,” Lowery explained. When he’s not serving with the guard, Lowery works in an oilfield in Texas.
Normally, Lowery would be in the field with his team, typically walking along with the company commander. But for the training exercise, he was stationed with other mortar soldiers at the mortar range. “This is my third AT and I’m usually on the hill at the range,” he said.
Lt. Levi Schutz is the mortar platoon leader for the 3rd battalion. Schultz, a Nebraska native, earned a criminal justice degree from the University of Louisiana Lafayette and lives in New Orleans. He joined the National Guard in 2013 and presently works for the Department of Defense.
“Our primary objective (with the XCTC drill), our training is always serious, but this is a chance to see how tactical we are. We want to evaluate where we stand as a mortar platoon,” he said. “The perfect plan is perfect until the first round is fired. This will help get us used to combat situations.”
Like Cpt. Cormier, Lt. Schutz was looking forward to his first brigade-level exercise. “I’ve done lots of platoon-level training, but brigade is three levels up,” he said. “The FTX (Field Training Exercise) will be really cool.”
When asked about the challenges of bringing together soldiers from so many different backgrounds and getting them to work as a team, Lt. Schutz said he sees the diversity as a strength rather than a challenge. “That’s one of the great things about the National Guard. You have people who may be engineers or a cop — so many backgrounds. There is almost nothing you can’t figure out.”
When a company calls for mortar support, Sergeant First Class James Castille gives the order yelling “Fireline, fireline, fireline!” Immediately the mortar launchers and forward observers scramble to take their places. The observers get eyes on the target and provide coordinates. The information is then loaded into laptop computers and a series of data points, from the amount of charge needed to propel the shell to the angle and direction to fire, are given to Castille, who in turn calls them out to the fire teams.
After an initial volley of shells, Castille and the observers make any adjustments needed. When they have the target locked in, Castille will give the order to “Fire for effect, three shells — fire when ready!” Firing for effect involves firing a series of shells from each mortar cannon, in this case three shells each from three different 80 mm cannons. The shells are arranged to bracket the target, with one hitting the middle and the other two landing on each side so that the blast areas overlap, effectively covering an entire grid square.
“At this point in the training, we’re working on precision. Working on muscle memory to become a well-oiled machine,” Castille explained. “I’m not too concerned about speed. Now, when you’re in combat where you don’t have a specific target but you are trying to get shells down range for suppression, then speed is a priority.”
The precision training is especially helpful when mortars can be used in a planned offensive. In those cases, Castille said his men can make things easier for ground troops by taking out key assets. “Communication is the key,” Castille explained. “Take that out and you’ve won the battle. So if you see an antenna or a dish, you want to take that out if you can.”
Technology advances like laser guidance and ranging and sophisticated computer software makes precision targeting easier. But what happens if they lose computer access in the field? “Then we go to the wiz wheel,” Castille said. “It’s the old-school calculation tool for shooting.” Castille said that while it is not as precise as the computer system, it will get them close enough to be able to adjust based on what the forward observers in the field see.
In an intense combat training exercise, injuries are bound to happen and combat medic Private Ezra Duhon (pronounced Dew-yawn) was a busy man. This was just the second drill for the Lafayette native. Thanks to the high heat and humidity — and the fact his medical truck had air conditioning — Duhon’s post was a popular spot in the field with Bravo Company. “I’m seeing a lot of heat cases, prickly heat, a lot of foot cases — athlete’s foot and borderline trench foot — and a lot of exhaustion,” he said.
Duhon said the field experience at XCTC was much different from what he saw in training. “It’s cool to get more of the clinical experience,” he said. “There is a lot more to being a medic than you learn at AIT (Advanced Individual Training that soldiers receive regarding their specific job after going through Basic training). There they mainly focus on trauma.”
When he is not in the field, Duhon plans to study at the University of Louisiana Lafayette, although he is not sure what his major will be. “I joined the National Guard with a bunch of friends I played football with. I’m still undecided (about college major), but it will definitely be something medical,” he said.
“The thing you have to understand about combat medics, we’re not life savers, we are life stabilizers,” Duhon emphasized. “The docs save the lives.”
The doctors he referred to are assigned to C Company of the 199th Brigade Support Battalion, which is based out of St. Martinville. The soldiers simply call the unit “Charlie Med.”
Cpt. John Meche, a Hammond native, is commander of the unit. He explained that the combat medics in the field will treat the more minor injuries. “If a patient needs a higher level of care they get evacuated to here,” he said.
The Charlie Med facility is staffed with doctors and nurses and can treat a variety of combat-related injuries. Services provided include x-ray, lab work, dental, behavior health issues and surgery. If patients need treatment that will last more than 72 hours, they will be transferred to full hospitals or other medical facilities.
As part of the XCTC training, a simulated mass casualty exercise was planned in which soldiers would be brought in from the field by helicopter with a variety of injuries. “It’s not too often that we get to this level,” Meche said. “It’s exciting to have First Army here to evaluate us. It really gives us a chance to work out the kinks and improve our processes.”
When it comes to medical treatment, time is of the essence in terms of saving lives. “We call it the golden hour — that’s the time we have from the initial injury to treatment,” Meche explained. “The more we rehearse, the better and faster we get at it.”
When deployed in the field, combat medics are on scene with soldiers in the field. Charlie Med’s goal is to have its facilities up and fully operational within six hours of hitting the ground.
In addition to the mock casualties, the team was treating soldiers from the training exercise as well. “We have seen close to 150 patients so far,” Meche said roughly 10 days into the 21-day exercise. “We have the capability to hold up to 20 patients for 72 hours.”
When the mass casualty exercise took place, the scene was reminiscent of an episode of M(asterisk)A(asterisk)S(asterisk)H with an announcement that wounded casualties were on the way. Doctors and nurses scurried from their quarters and reported to the medical tent. Crews stood ready with stretchers and ambulances to greet the incoming helicopters with wounded soldiers.
Specialist Jasmin Polidore of Jennerette, serving as the Triage NCOC (non-commissioned officer-in-charge), was one of the first medical responders the wounded encountered. Her job was to assign the wounded to one of four areas based on the severity of their wounds. Those ranged from those who needed immediate treatment, those who could wait or had more minor injuries, and those who had untreatable fatal injuries and were taken directly to a chaplain.
When she joined the National Guard, Polidore wasn’t sure what she wanted to do. Now, thanks to her Guard experience, she is a nursing student. “When I spoke with the recruiter I said I wanted a highly-respected MOS (Military Occupational Specialty). I didn’t want to be a paper pusher. He said, ‘Everybody likes medics,’ so I said let’s give that a shot. I grew to love the craft.”
Once inside the medical tent, Sergeant Joy Richard (pronounced Ree-shard) of Pineville was one of the first medical personnel the injured victims met. A field engineer with Siemens when she’s not working with the National Guard, Richard was working as a patient intake worker. “I joined the National Guard to better myself and to serve my country,” the seven-year veteran explained. “I love helping people and seeing our company work together.”
While Spc. Polidore picked nursing based on her time in the service, Sergeant First Class Karen Gangloff of Lafayette joined the National Guard for medical training only to find that she preferred non-medical work away from the field. She now works as a corrections officer.
Gangloff is a 17-year veteran who has deployed twice to Iraq. “It was a friend’s idea to join,” she recalled. “So I was going along. I joined and he didn’t. My only stipulation was to be a medic. I was planning to study to become an EMT.”
As a deployment veteran, Gangloff said the XCTC training was good, but it wasn’t totally realistic. “In the field, there is no warning. In real life you can’t get prepared. You hear gunfire or an explosion and you run to the site.” Still, she said the mass casualty drill was good practice for working through the treatment process.
Specialist Djon Lee of Monroe was one of the medics treating the injured soldiers. Lee has been in the National Guard for eight years and has one deployment to Kuwait. “I joined specifically to be a medic,” he said. “When I was younger, I wanted to be a doctor.”
Since that time he has shifted his focus and is now using his G.I. Bill benefits to pursue a degree in business administration.