Author’s note: this is the second in a multi-part series following the 2-108th Cavalry Squadron of the Louisiana National Guard as the unit prepares for its rotation at the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC), at Fort Polk, LA. Each piece will tell a different part of the unit’s story, and give readers a glimpse into how National Guard units prepare for war. Read Part I here.
As leaders at the Squadron level rush to ensure their soldiers are compliant with all of the administrative requirements, leadership at the troop level is equally concerned with preparing their soldiers to be successful at the upcoming JRCT rotation.
“We’re really working on field craft skills this year,” says HHT First Sergeant Brandon Lee. 1SG Lee is a presence: well over six-feet tall, built like a powerlifter, with a shiny bald head and intense gaze. He’s one of the more intimidating men I’ve ever met. He’s also one of the most kind and down to earth people I know, and I find myself talking to him about challenges in my personal life a few minutes into my interview with him. He has a way of making you feel comfortable and relaxed and you can’t help but like the guy. As a 21 year veteran of the National Guard, 1SG Lee is also one of the more experienced soldiers in the Squadron.
“A lot of the Soldiers, especially the ones whose occupational specialty isn’t in combat arms, don’t have much experience living and operating outside in the field,” said 1SG Lee. He goes on to explain that since the GWOT, the Army has focused on training for counterinsurgency operations and “FOB warfare.” As a result, critical field craft skills — once the mainstay of Army training — have fallen by the wayside.
During JRTC, the Squadron will be living, working, and fighting in the field, for two weeks straight. And the little tricks and tips to keep yourself healthy and relatively comfortable while living in an austere environment are going to be invaluable to the men and women of the 2-108th. As the brigade’s reconnaissance element, the 2-108th’s soldiers will constantly be on the move. Their wartime function is a combination of several different missions, each of which presents its own set of challenges. They must first act as the eyes and ears of the brigade, and conduct reconnaissance of the area to identify enemy forces, find the objective, and scout for suitable terrain. The unit also acts as a security force for the rest of the Brigade, and they are tasked with finding the enemy’s reconnaissance units and destroying them. This can be incredibly difficult, as the force that the 256th is expected to encounter at JRTC is a “hybrid” force with both conventional and unconventional units.
“I’m a lot more worried about the unconventional reconnaissance efforts than the conventional,” says McKnight. “I can find and identify an enemy BTR (armored vehicle) pretty quick, but a guy with a cellphone who blends into the crowd is a lot harder to spot.” At JRTC, a team of several hundred role players acts as the citizens of a fictional country. Some will be friendly and helpful, others standoffish, and some will be hostile. The soldiers will need to be able to quickly tell the difference between friend and foe, or risk having the enemy observe the movements of the entire brigade.
Because their mission is so vital, the soldiers in the 2-108th can’t afford to get slowed down tending to preventable injuries or faulty equipment. They will need to survive and thrive in the forests of Louisiana during the summer — in full kit — and be able to move quickly and quietly for extended periods of time, with little food, practically zero sleep, and under constant threat of enemy attack. It’s going to take a lot of work and a lot of practice for leaders like 1SG Lee to get his Soldiers ready for JRTC, and while on paper he has eight months to prepare, the First Sergeant only has about 33 days total before the unit reports to JRTC and commences operations.
“It’s what makes being a Guardsman really difficult,” 1SG Lee explains. “We have a fraction of the time that the Regular Army has to train, yet we have to meet the same requirements.”
1SG Lee isn’t complaining, and in his estimation, the Guard’s strength comes from the diversity of experiences and training that the soldiers have outside of the Guard. In the civilian world, 1SG Lee is a firefighter paramedic, one of several soldiers of the 2-108th who work in public safety. There are also nurses, teachers, oil field hands, students, an armored truck driver, and a respiratory therapist. Each soldier brings his or her outside knowledge to the unit, and the result is an incredibly well-rounded group of service members.
However, the limited training time means that leaders like Lee can’t afford to miss any opportunity to provide instruction or practice skills. Still, there isn’t enough time to complete everything. Something’s got to give. Maybe the unit focuses a drill on field craft but sacrifices a day at the gun range. Or perhaps the group gets to go to the gun range but has to cut a day for physical training. These are the kind of decisions that leadership in the unit has to make every drill.