FORT SILL, Okla. (July 20, 2017) — This is the seventh in a series following five Army National Guard Split Option Program recruits during basic combat training. The headline is adapted from Chuck Berry’s opening line in “Let it Rock.”
The sticky Oklahoma heat these last few weeks didn’t keep C Battery, 1st Battalion, 79th Field Artillery basic combat trainees from doing the hard grunt work of becoming Soldiers. However, their final field exercise did find them sleeping in less-than-spartan lodging — air-conditioned tents!
Considering that temperatures were near the 100-degree mark during Field Training Exercise (FTX) 3 held in mock urban villages, the artificially cool nights were a well-deserved break during the four-day bivouac at Forward Operating Base Kelly. Though the tents were large, they were crowded with cots. Spit-baths with pre-moistened towelettes were shower substitutes, but trainees did eat real food in the chow line.
Come morning July 13, they looked bright-eyed and battle-ready, their sun-reddened faces glistening with the dew of a humid Oklahoma day. The Platoon Wars were on!
The defenders were 2nd Platoon, at Little Chicago village about a mile away from FOB Kelly. It was one of three Middle Eastern-themed villages within sight of each other, made of old shipping containers called Conex’s. The Death Dealers prepared to defend against an attack by 1st Platoon’s Headhunters. The defenders had M16s, several M249 machine guns and a limited amount of ammo, but held the distinct advantage of wide-open spaces between them and their attackers.
Several snipers hid in the tall grass between the village and a line of trees, and rooftop sentries easily spotted the first advance. Gunfire and “artillery” explosions “killed” those designated by the cadre, and the “dead” simply removed their helmets and stopped shooting.
It was a hard-fought battle, but it was over within minutes. Although some of the attackers got through, the defenders won. Each team had a lengthy after-action discussion about what they did wrong, and what went right.
Drill Sergeant (Staff Sgt.) Diego Vega sat with 2nd Platoon in the shade and asked, “What was supposed to happen?” One Soldier answered, “We were supposed to defend the village, drill sergeant.”
Another said, “Kill the enemy.” They took turns describing their tactics. Across the “street,” Drill Sgt. (Staff Sgt.) Michael Deserio’s 1st Platoon did the same analysis.
“How did we succeed on Normandy?” he asked, referring to the World War II invasion. “We kept going, right? Kept going, kept going … Did we have any cover on the way up? No, we didn’t. It didn’t matter. We had to get here. Fast! That’s why I told you, ‘just run.’ When the gunfire starts, do a 3-to-5-second rush. You have to get here. You have to get to that wall, because that wall is cover.”
Battery 1st Sgt. Joshua Pickering told of his experience in Iraq with the rules of engagement and the difficulty of trying not to kill civilians. He also advised, “Don’t rush to failure. You see the consequence of rushing to failure. So, what’s the consequence of taking your time?”
Deserio said later that in a real life situation he would have launched more artillery and dropped a lot of smoke to hide the advance of his troops into the village. Despite the lack of cover and the advantage of rooftop shooters, his Soldiers used their individual movement techniques to attack the village. “Artillery would have been the key to success,” he said.
3rd and 4th Platoons got their chance that afternoon, then the battery did it all over again the next day at a mock village near the Conex Arch. This one had realistically painted exterior walls, and inside were nests of barn swallows that weren’t used to invaders keeping them from feeding their hatchlings.
1st Platoon was the defense this time, and they were told to give the attackers a good fight even though they faced certain “death.” Several trainees were stationed by the arch, and when 2nd Platoon arrived, “artillery” smoke filled the air as they advanced.
Doors were kicked in, defenders dispatched, and rooms cleared amid the sound of blanks and the scent of gunpowder. In just a few minutes, it was all over. Again, these battles continued into the afternoon. This time, however, the trainees got an extended rest break to cool off and hydrate. The day ended with a march back to the barracks, about eight miles away. To beat the heat, they started late, and arrived in the “cool” of the evening. FTX 3 had concluded.
Of the five ARNG trainees featured in this series, two are now platoon guides: Pfc. Rachel Dibbins (2nd Platoon “Death Dealers” and Pfc. Cailin Cinnamon (1st Platoon “Headhunters.”) Cinnamon’s appointment came about a week after 1st Platoon’s initial guide was “fired for talking in formation,” she said. “The drill sergeant walked up and said, ‘You’re fired! Cinnamon, get up here!”
Both wear Sgt. 1st Class stripes on their right arms –an honorary rank. Watching them in action, it’s clear they don’t hesitate to take charge. They bark “stop talking” or “get in formation,” but are not immune to correction from the drill sergeants themselves.
They represented their platoons during the pugel stick competition against 4th Platoon, July 8, with Cinnamon declared the winner of her round. Dibbins lost to her opponent. “She’s a beast,” she laughed.
All five also accepted new challenges on the Confidence Obstacle Course, learned hand-to-hand fighting techniques, and expanded their weaponry skills on machine guns and grenade launchers. There was even a “Nick at Night” training where they crawled in the dark through a hail of live fire 30 feet above their heads. If they continue to beat the heat (in more ways than one), they are set to graduate July 28.