News: Infantry assault chemical camp at Mountain Warfare Training Center
BRIDGEPORT, Calif.—Citizen-soldiers trained as scouts and snipers from 1st Battalion, 160th Infantry, traded their Southern California vistas of palm trees for pine cones, below-freezing snow flurries and the Sierra Nevada Mountains when they participated in the Operation Red Snow exercise Feb. 10-16, 2012.
The infantrymen joined forces with fellow California National Guard soldiers and airmen from the 9th and 95th Civil Support Teams (CST) and the 144th Fighter and 146th Airlift Wings to create a training exercise structured around the task of taking down a domestic terrorist group operating in northeastern California.
The scenario had troops from the Inglewood and Glendale Readiness Centers play the roles of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies that would spearhead the assault. FBI and SWAT personnel were also on-hand as advisers. The Airmen based in Fresno and Channel Islands, played the part of the terrorists, who were operating a drug-dealing ring to fund their ambitions of building dirty bombs. The CSTs from Hayward and Los Alamitos were prepared to swoop in and deal with the weapons of mass destruction once the area was clear.
About 30 soldiers from the 1-160th’s Headquarters and Headquarters Company (HHC) and Company B met up for the first time at the Joint Forces Training Base flight line in Los Alamitos, where they left for the mountains in style, like a modern day version of the scene from Apocalypse Now, but in Black Hawk’s, humming Richard Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries.
“I always thought it would be like this,” joked Spc. Craig Cooper, a patrol sergeant with the South Pasadena police department, who has served in the California Guard for two years. “First time in a Black Hawk, first time doing a mission like this. This is why I joined.”
The soldiers flew 300 miles from sea level to 4,000 feet in a few hours, landed in Bishop, Calif., due to an incoming weather front and drove the final 100 miles to the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center (MWTC) located on Route 108, which dissects Yosemite National Park. Closest town is Bridgeport, 20 miles away.
They weren’t in Kansas anymore.
“When we arrived it felt like a different world; the area had a good covering of snow,” said Cooper about the MWTC, a testing ground built at 6,700 feet in 1951 to train snow, rock and alpine specialists in the most extreme winter climates.
Luckily for the men from the Los Angeles Basin, the temperatures were unseasonably high with little snowfall during their visit. However, they would quickly learn how harsh the mountains can be.
“Everything you do in higher elevations is harder,” an MWTC instructor said during a mandatory briefing for the exercise participants. “You must acclimate properly or suffer anything from splitting headaches to altitude sickness, also known as acute mountain sickness. The flu-like symptoms [of altitude sickness] can affect anyone and can lead to high altitude pulmonary or cerebral edema, which is fatal.”
The troops sat through hours of classes emphasizing the importance of their location within the Toiyabe National Forest. They learned about mountain medical evacuation, wildlife, environmental concerns and winter injuries.
“Everything is amplified up here,” the instructor concluded.
During their first three days at the MWTC, the soldiers acclimated to their surroundings by doing nothing but sleeping, walking around, performing light workouts, drinking plenty of water and eating. As they closed in on their assault day, the infantrymen from the 1-160th, nicknamed the “Blackjacks”, conducted low-key combat maneuvers and patient extraction while constantly testing and adjusting their gear and the cold weather equipment issued by the MWTC.
“[The HHC] and [Company B] have never worked together before,” said Staff Sgt. Justin Cruz, one of many Army Ranger-qualified members of the 1-160th, who is a police officer in Santa Barbara. “Luckily, we have set standards and our [standard operating procedures] come into play.
“We add to our plan lessons learned from multiple deployments, go over the ‘what if’ game, and make sure each individual knows their part of the mission,” continued Cruz, who led a scout element that gathered intelligence on the simulated terrorist camp. “This training is going to make us all better operators and give us vital experience in this type of environment.”
Also sneaking and peeking were Sgt. Leif Devemark and Cpl. Mark Matthews. The sniper-and-spotter tandem ventured into the higher ridges daily to gain overwatch positions, moving slowly and silently to remain undetected as they blended in with their surroundings.
The terrorist role-players knew the snipers were out there and stared often into the tree line. With the camp completed, including fortified defenses and warming tents, the terrorist-portraying airmen hunkered down for two days during a fresh blanket of snow, freezing temperatures and waited.
“We knew they were going to attack us, but didn’t know when,” said Senior Airmen Dustin Turner, 144th Explosive Ordnance Disposal Flight. “We set up observation and listening posts and sent out roving patrols in hopes to flush them out… We know how to defend a base. That is our job as security forces.”
Down in the valley 1,000 feet below, in warm barracks, scouts and snipers received their operation orders. It was time to go.
“Long Tall Sally, she built sweet, she got everything that Uncle John need. Aw baby, I'm gonna have me some fun tonight,” sang a group from the assault element, using Little Richard’s song in a scene from the movie Predator to pump themselves up. Each troop got into their zone as they tested scopes; night vision goggles and loaded blank rounds into their M4 Carbine magazines. The soldiers would be hauling a minimum of 40 pounds each, plus their rifle and ammunition.
“The level of training we have gotten from our most experienced leaders here instills faith,” Cooper said while performing his pre-combat inspection. “It builds up your confidence. [When] they talk, you better open your ears.”
At 10:30 p.m. the men from the HHC and Company B, also known as “Joker” and “Bandit” companies, peered into the darkness at the unfamiliar landscape they would traverse over the next four hours. Armed with a map and GPS device and aided by a bright starry night, 1st Lt. Serguei Louchnikov, an Army Ranger-qualified platoon leader from the HHC, led his assault force, who in some cases hasn’t been in snow in more than six years, across fields and streams and up and down steep ravines to close in on their high elevation objective.
As Cruz and his scout team edged within meters of their final position before the attack, the two other squad leaders, Staff Sgt. Juan Polino of Company B and Staff Sgt. Jesus Orozco of the HHC, emerged from the woods and brought their assault team on line.
Spotlights were sweeping the snowfields surrounding the camp, as the “terrorists” were on high alert.
The soldiers, who only met each other a week ago, had just hiked silently and undetected using only the night-vision goggles attached to their helmets, were staged within 50 yards to strike a blow to the terrorists. It was 2:30 a.m. and 19 degrees.
Then all hell broke loose. Cruz’s team was compromised, shots rang out, and then the assault team went in guns ablaze. It was all over in a matter of minutes.
In the aftermath, both attackers and defenders praised each other.
“You’ve got to give the Air Force credit,” said Cpl. Javier Martinez, assistant squad leader to Orozco. “Their patrols were effective and put us into action before we wanted to.”
Staff Sgt. Joseph Villalobos of the 144th Fighter Wing said the terrorist role-players were happy when the attack finally came, because they were tired of looking for the enemy. “We haven’t slept in 48 hours,” he said. “We heard they had Rangers and could have taken us out numerous ways, but luckily for us they gave us a fighting chance by assaulting us head-on.”
“Suicide,” said Louchnikov. “Attacking a force that is trained in similar tactics, who had interlocking sectors of fire, is absolute suicide.”
On their wish list if they had to do it over again: better optics, thermal imagery, unmanned aerial drone flyovers, and detailed satellite photos.
The 1-160th normally wouldn’t be involved in an event such as this assault — it just isn’t their job — but it was a valuable chance to train and perfect their trade nonetheless. Rather than domestic terrorists, the Airmen role-players could easily have been enemy combatants and the 1-160th soldiers could have been patrolling in Afghanistan’s mountains.
Despite not achieving an overwhelming victory, the operation seen as a success.
“While we know we wouldn’t typically attempt this kind of action, it provided us a rare opportunity to train with joint forces and act in a reverse role as our civil authorities,” said Maj. Eric Finch, executive officer for the 1-160th. “I know [the battalion commander] grabbed at this chance to train as domestic support to our state and federal law enforcement agencies. We normally train at Camp Pendleton or Fort Irwin, so this helped stretch our knowledge in an environment we aren’t used to operating in, and we are better for it.”
Date Posted:03.22.2012 19:19
Location:BRIDGEPORT, CA, US
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