News: Tactical and Technical Talent Tested at NTC
Story by Staff Sgt. Mark Burrell
FORT IRWIN, Calif. – Winds whipped a small encampment on the high-desert mountains somewhere in the Mojave Desert just after nightfall. About thirty Soldiers from the 322nd Engineer Company, an Army Reserve vertical construction unit from Decorah, Iowa, one of seven units attached to the 368th Eng. Battalion, huddled up in tent cots trying to protect themselves from the elements.
Out of the dead quiet, an enormous explosion echoed down the craggy valley deep within the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, Calif., May 28, 2010.
"I had one boot on and one boot off, but as soon as I heard it I was just worried about getting my helmet and my armor on," said Sgt. Robert J. Theobald, a carpenter masonry specialist from Woodbury, Minn., assigned to the 322nd Eng. Co. "I was over with 1st Armored Division in Iraq during 2003-2004 and the rocket attack was pretty spot on."
"My heart went from 48 beats per minute to 120 beats per minute," added Pfc. Steven M. Forsythe, a native of Glenwood, Iowa, and another carpenter masonry specialist assigned to the 322nd Eng. Company. "But with this training here at NTC, I'll be prepared when we head to Afghanistan."
With intense instructors like Sgt. 1st Class Edward L. Hurtado, Jr., being prepared shouldn't be a problem for these engineers.
"The soldiers of the 322nd, you name it and we've hit them with it," said Hurtado, an observer controller from Merced, Calif., assigned to A Company, Operations Group "Sidewinders," NTC. "They're constantly learning and bettering themselves."
Hurtado also mentioned that these engineers have a very unique mission compared to maneuver units or other brigade combat teams at NTC. These Soldiers are tasked with rebuilding a combat outpost for future generations of troops who train here.
"Vertical construction engineers focus mainly on technical skills and not tactical most of the time, but they are going to get dropped into a combat environment to set up a FOB or a COP, and they will have to provide their own security," explained Hurtado from behind a sunburned and wind-cracked face from many days and nights up in the mountains. "Training for ambushes like last night is going to protect them and it's going to save their lives over there."
"Since we're scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan, this is the perfect training because it replicates the conditions over there," said 1st Lt. Michael N. Dyrdahl, a platoon leader from Decorah, Iowa, assigned to the 322nd Eng. Company. "It helps us hone our tactical skills because as a Reserve unit, we're better with the technical side and this shows Soldiers real threats."
The engineers have been pulling guard duty 24 hours-a-day as well as reconstructing COP 28. They are building sturdier buildings on top of the rocky terrain observation post that overlooks two desolate valleys. The only way to reach COP 28 is by helicopter because of the unforgiving terrain.
"This project enables units to come up here and train in more weather-tight structures," Dyrdahl yelled in a hoarse voice barely audible over the wind. "It feels good to build these for follow-on units."
Theobald, a combat-tested engineer, noticed the recent construction between the last time he trained at "The Box" in NTC until now.
"The Box has changed a lot, because there are more COPs and FOBs," explained Theobald. "Someone makes a decision way higher up than me and then they call in the engineers to come in and get it done."
Yet, the Army Reserve engineers bring something extra to the table. Many of them work as construction or mechanical engineers for their civilian career, oftentimes going to trade schools or otherwise improving their technical skills outside the Army.
"My 'old man' owns a construction company and I'm a mechanical engineer in the civilian world," said Forythe. "It helps my organization skills because when I get ready, I take everything step by step."
So far, their approach hasn't led them astray, and they are ahead of schedule to complete their project.
"They've impressed me a lot," said Hurtado. "It's not that you're Reserve, National Guard or Active, we're all Soldiers. We want them to go down range and accomplish their mission and we hope that's because of how our training contributed to them."
Hurtado also mentioned that they did an excellent job during the late-night ambush.
"We had our machine gun positions in place quickly and we spotted some local nationals with weapons through our night vision," said Dyrdahl recalling the night before. "They advanced on us with grenades and small-arms fire and that's when we called in the Apaches."
Dyrdahl was amazed that within a few minutes, sounds of approaching Apache attack helicopters were on the scene to protect the small outpost in the middle of the night.
"It made us feel awesome that a little engineer platoon from Decorah, Iowa, can call in Apaches for overhead support," continued Dyrdahl. "Though we lost some Soldiers, we kept the hill that night."
Realistic training is hard to find. Yet, providing a "real-world" mission for these engineers while still keeping them on their tactical toes can only be found in arguably the best training center in the world. Deep within the Mojave Desert, Soldiers find out what it means to be transplanted to a combat environment while providing future generations of Soldiers a better place to train.