News: 864th Pacemakers train to build a solid foundation
Story by Staff Sgt. Antwaun Parrish
ORCHARD COMBAT TRAINING CENTER, Idaho – Twenty-four hour operations, indirect fire attacks and constant training sets the grueling pace that soldiers from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., have been operating under lately.
“Set the pace,” is the motto of the 864th Engineer Battalion and the driving force as they prepare for their upcoming deployment to Afghanistan.
“I want the soldiers fit to fight,” said Lt. Col. John Henderson, battalion commander. “Physically, spiritually and mentally fit.”
The battalion is currently conducting a month-long training exercise at the Orchard Combat Training Center, Idaho. The training exercise encompasses construction projects, platoon level certifications and individual and crew served weapons qualifications.
The OCTC is located 14-miles south of Boise, it is a National Guard base that has similar conditions much like soldiers will experience when deployed to Afghanistan. The unit was already scheduled to conduct construction training at OCTC, but when orders came for an earlier deployment date, the training site allowed them the flexibility to prepare the entire battalion for battlefield operations.
This dry, dusty environment replicates conditions in Afghanistan and freethinking opposition forces add to the realism in order to get the soldiers used to doing everything with an eye on the enemy.
For Staff Sgt. Joshua Freeland this will be his third time deploying with the unit to Afghanistan. He believes the battalion is going in the right direction for deployment preparation.
“Downrange we came under multiple direct and indirect attacks,” said Freeland, a construction engineering supervisor. “This is a great training environment, it simulates Afghanistan well. OCTC is definitely suited for the training.”
Alongside being reactive, the engineer battalion has airfield improvement projects to complete during the training exercise. They will construct a taxiway, an operational and control tower, metal hutments and a fuel line along the taxiway.
“The projects are to enhance the proficiency of our operators on the equipment we’ll be using in Afghanistan,” said Henderson, a native of Edgemont, S.D. “There will be significant upgrades to the airfield here as well.”
Henderson explained that this is the fifth deployment for the battalion within the past ten years and that a lot of their past work may now be a part of their new mission.
“We built many bases and checkpoint infrastructures during our previous deployments,” Henderson said. “Well probably be going to tear some of them down.”
Because of the constant possibility of getting attacked during missions, the battalion is adamant about getting the soldiers’ combat skills sharp as well. The soldiers must complete a series of certifications on convoy live fire, counter improvised explosive device lanes and humvee egress assistance training. The soldiers are also firing several crew served and individual weapons, such as the M249 light machine gun and the M-240B machine gun.
“I need everyone comfortable in the turret of a humvee,” Henderson said. “I want them experts at shooting, moving and communicating. If not we’ll never get to our construction projects.”
Freeland, a native of Asheville, N.C., states that the battalion has undergone major personnel changes recently but he’s confident that the transformation will not hinder the mission.
“We’ve lost a lot of combat experience,” Freeland said. “But we also have received a lot of combat veteran NCOs to help steer the younger non-deployed soldiers in the right direction.”
However, he offers up a bit of advice to the new Pacemaker soldiers.
“Listen to your leadership, follow NCO’s direction and guidance,” Freeland said. “When in doubt ask, take care of yourself and your battle buddies so we can all come home safe.”
Henderson admits that the battalion has been operating non-stop the whole year and he expresses his appreciation for everyone’s efforts.
“Command Sgt. Maj. Tipton and I are extremely proud of the Pacemaker soldiers and their resiliency,” Henderson said. “They’ve been working hard all year on several missions, and then to come out here for a month-long exercise takes a lot of strength. Families are staying resilient, and we are just proud of the way they are getting through all this.”
Training continues as the battalion prepares for their mission readiness exercise here to get certified by the 555th Engineer Brigade observer controllers.
“My intent is that when we get done, we are ready to go and begin our mission,” Henderson said.