By 1st Lt. Tony Formica
1-5 IN Public Affairs
FORT WAINWRIGHT, Alaska - Veteran soldiers with the Bulldog Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry “Bobcats” remember September of 2011 vividly.
From Sept. 9 to Sept. 19 of that year, the Bulldogs, along with their fellow Bobcats in Charger Company and two companies of soldiers from the Afghan National Army, were engaged in Operation Bobcat Maul, the single largest air assault in 1-5 IN’s history since Vietnam.
Their objective was to clear out the Horn of Panjwa’i, a Taliban stronghold at the far western end of Panjwa’i district, Kandahar province, Afghanistan, an isolated area of expansive grape fields considered to be the birthplace of the insurgent movement. Mullah Mohammed Omar, the central leader of the Taliban, started the insurgency from his home village in the Horn, and over the past 10 years the Taliban had enjoyed virtual autonomy there because no coalition forces ever dared to venture into the area for more than a few hours of operations.
That all changed Sept. 9, 2011, when the Bobcats and their Afghan partners undertook Operation Bobcat Maul during the 10th anniversary of terrorist attacks that started America’s decade-long involvement in Afghanistan.
Operation Bobcat Maul would ultimately see the Bobcats drive the Taliban out of the Horn and establish a permanent presence there through the establishment of Combat Outpost Lion, manned by the Bobcats’ Apache Company and their own Afghan partners.
The cost for the Bobcats was great—over their 10 days of operations, the soldiers of Bulldog and Charger Company would share between them 23 casualties as a result of direct action against the enemy.
At the end of the operation, the Bulldogs would end up moving more than six miles on foot to their extraction point to be lifted out by helicopters to their own strong points back in the secure Dand district.
Staff Sgt. Lance Otzmann of Goodyear, Ariz., remembers that march well.
“We lost a lot of guys,” he says. “And because we weren’t able to get resupplied easily, we wound up keeping most of our casualties’ equipment with us, because we didn’t know if their rounds, water, or food would be necessary later on during the fight. At the end of the operation, with so few soldiers and so much extra equipment, we wound up putting the equipment on SKEDCOs [sled-like devices that can be pulled to transport wounded soldiers] and dragging it with us to the extraction point.”
Drawing on recent history
It was with Operation Bobcat Maul in mind that Otzmann and his platoon leader, 2nd Lt. Skylar Petitt, designed the Bulldogs’ first round of machine gun pre-marksmanship instruction, or PMI, since their return to Fort Wainwright. The Bulldogs first provided a day and half for learning the basic operation, maintenance, and assembly procedures for various machine gun weapon systems. The soldiers would then put their skills to the test in a simulated stressful environment that would evaluate both how well they had learned the material and at the same time instill pride in their unit’s history.
“Weapons familiarization is important in itself because all soldiers need to know the basics of all the weapon systems they use,” says Sgt. Joshua Bishop, one of Otzmann’s team leaders from Hagerstown, Md. “But in combat, they need to be able to apply those basic skills while they’re out of breath, stressed out, scared. That’s why we added the little challenge at the end of the training.”
The “little challenge” was a competition that would randomly place four Bulldog junior soldiers on a team and have them drag an Akhio sled system between various stations where they would be timed on their ability to disassemble, reassemble, and conduct functions checks on the weapon systems they’d been learning about. The sleds would weigh anywhere from 200-250 pounds, just like the SKEDCOs in Operation Bobcat Maul, and the soldiers would be evaluated not only on how quickly they completed the events, but also on how much teamwork, leadership potential, and technical competence they each displayed throughout the course of the competition.
A total of 10 teams—40 soldiers—ended up completing the PMI competition, and while most of the soldiers were apprehensive about the concept of dragging 250 pounds over long distances, their final assessment of the training was universally positive.
“This was my first time ever seeing a Mark-19,” says Pvt. Matthew Hollingsworth, a new Bulldog soldier from Dallas. “This training was definitely good for me because I want to one day be a gunner for the M240 machine gun.”
Pfc. Joshua Forgy, another new Bulldog soldier from Federal Way, Wash., agrees.
“The physical competition was really tough,” Forgy says. “It was definitely worth it though … it taught me that I need to hit the gym more so I’m not so tired when I go to do these sort of tasks.”
Spc. Arpad Galbo, a veteran Bulldog from Chicago who was present for Operation Bobcat Maul, thinks that the Bulldogs’ training was exactly what both new soldiers and younger veteran soldiers need.
“This is what we do as infantrymen,” Galbo says after finishing the competition with his team. “It’s hard, and it also teaches us to remember all of the guys who we lost and who were wounded downrange.”
History is important for the Bobcats—their regiment has served the Army for more than 200 years—but Otzmann also says there’s a more immediate, practical aim of the training.
“We’re getting our Strykers soon, and before long these guys will have to qualify with these weapons systems out at gunnery ranges,” Otzmann says. “My job is to make sure that we do that as well as we can, as quickly as we can.”