JERICO, Vt. - Like the Seven Dwarfs of fairy tale, or prison chain gangs of old, the soldiers of Mortar Section, Headquarters, Headquarters Company, 3rd Battalion, 172nd Infantry Regiment are used to using pickaxes. During their drill weekend this February, the mortarmen prepared their mortar sites by chopping through frozen dirt and rock. They are doing this in preparation for their Annual Training at Fort Polk, La., later this year.
“The key is to ensure the base plate is properly seated with the ground,” said Spc. Anthony Grant a mortarman with the unit, referring to the main base on which the mortar will sit. “That way, we can be sure that our mortars are fired in a safe and consistent manner.”
Grant, like the rest of these mortarmen, considers site preparation an essential skill to retain. While it may not be as flashy as ‘hanging’ the mortar, making sure your weapon fires safely and in the right direction is one of the most important parts of the process.
The classic scene in the movie ‘Stripes’ comes to mind when watching these men work. In the snowy woods of Vermont this weekend, it isn’t bumbling Capt. Stillman coming through to assess his troops. Instead, Brig. Gen. Steve Cray, the adjutant general of the Vermont Guard, and Command Sgt. Maj. Forrest Glodgett, the state’s command sergeant major came to ensure the soldiers of this mortar section are working to standard. After all, being proficient in the use of this weapon is key when mobile artillery is needed.
“Mortars are key in this Infantry Brigade,” said Glodgett. “To be able to provide artillery to the battlefield in a quick, mobile fashion is what this section is all about.”
Glodgett knows this from experience. A former mortarman himself, Glodgett remembers a time when he and his team would walk miles carrying heavy components in order to be able to provide artillery support.
“While the larger guns are great, they require much more effort to move and set-up,” said Glodgett.
With the holes chopped to an adequate depth, it’s time to actually set-up the guns. This is something drilled into the minds of these soldiers since their initial training and entry into the Army, and it is plain to see how well they know their equipment. Using Defense Advanced GPS Receivers, called DAGARS, as well as sight poles and scopes, these mortars are checked, re-checked, and checked once more for good measure. This is a training mission and it’s important to ensure the entire section knows how to set the mortars properly.
“It can’t be overstated how important proper alignment is when setting up these mortars,” said Sgt. 1st Class Cantrese Adams, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the mortar section. “In a situation where you have limited rounds, and those you are supporting might have even less time; accuracy and proficiency is everything.”
Indeed, missing your mark can have disastrous consequences. This is why, before any rounds are fired, a range safety officer working for Camp Ethan Allen Training Site, or CEATS, must be present during the initial round of fire. This RSO ensures that the mortars are aligned correctly, and the rounds aren’t hurtling toward something or someone they shouldn’t.
As mentioned before, the key aspect of any mortar section is mobility. When the battalion commander requires artillery support, and time is of the essence, it is the mortarman that answers the call.
“Our inherent ability to be organic and mobile allows us to be wherever the commander needs us to be,” said Adams. We may be part of HHC, but our assets belong directly to him [battalion commander].”
While some may think the road to the unit’s Annual Training at Fort Polk, La. is six months long, the members of the mortar section can only train on drill weekends. This means, in reality, there is less than a weeks worth of hands-on training before heading to the Joint Readiness Training Center. These soldiers are acutely aware of their time limits and are utilizing all the daylight they have at their disposal to ensure their abilities and weapons are ready for whatever comes their way.