News: Realistic training tests new engineer leadership
Story by Staff Sgt. Antwaun Parrish
ORCHARD COMBAT TRAINING CENTER, Idaho – As the loader lifted the moon dust into the back of the dump truck, the lightweight sand caused a cloud to form over the construction site. Before the loader fully lowered to pick up more dust, indirect fire shots resonated throughout the area. The already engaged soldiers were forced to switch into reaction mode as they frantically secured the perimeter of their construction zone.
“A lot of the soldiers never deployed so it’s a shock for them to react and then jump back on the equipment,” said Staff Sgt. Luke Topansa, a horizontal construction engineer.
Soldiers assigned to 557th Engineer Company (Animals), 864th Engineer Battalion, are in charge of constructing horizontal projects during training at the Orchard Combat Training Center, Idaho. The battalion is currently conducting a month-long exercise in preparation for an upcoming deployment to Afghanistan.
Horizontal construction engineers use bulldozers, cranes, graders and other heavy equipment to move tons of earth and material to complete construction projects. The company is tasked with building a north and south taxiway for the airfield during their pre-deployment training.
The experience is greatly appreciated by 2nd Lt. Gian Agni, a platoon leader who has only been in the Army for one year after graduating from the United States Military Academy, he strives to absorb all the experience and training he’s receiving at OCTC.
“It’s a good preparation for deployment,” said Agni, a native of Ewa Beach, Hawaii. “It gives me the basic understanding and foundation in horizontal construction work.”
Agni is appreciative to have Topansa as his platoon sergeant because because he has been deployed three times and has a lot of combat experience.
“I’m trying to learn as much as I can for this deployment,” Agni said.
As Topansa, a native of Guam, walked back and forth leading the scraper through the dusty uneven terrain, it seemed to be another productive day at the construction site. But, as they reached the end of the early signs of a taxiway, the indirect fire of opposition forces halted their momentum.
The loud booms of mortars quickly placed him into a mode he’d experienced many times during his past deployments. But as a leader he couldn’t just think about himself. He quickly began to gain accountability of his soldiers so he could report the platoon’s status to Agni.
“Accountability, accountability, accountability,” Topansa repeated as he explained his reaction to the indirect fire. “I needed to ensure my platoon leader received the accountability report and the number of casualties.”
The training came with more that just a reaction to attacks. Many soldiers were designated as casualties, causing the platoon to not only fight back, but take care of the wounded and get them away from the site.
The Animal company eventually secured the area and defeated opposition forces.
“It’s very challenging when you’re getting attacked,” Agni said. “My first priorities are to send up status reports, maintain communication with my platoon sergeant and call up a medical evacuation when needed.”
Topansa feels that the soldiers are getting more adapted to the attacks. He also believes that the training will benefit the soldiers downrange, as it prepares them mentally and physically for possible attacks from the enemy.
“Equipment we can always replace, but my soldiers are my main priority,” Topansa said. “You can only prepare for so much. Sometimes you have to adjust fire on the go.”
Regardless of the attacks and other expectations, the construction job has a deadline, and it is prior to the end of the training exercise.
Topansa expressed that he has one main goal for his platoon.
“Accomplish the mission and bring everyone home.”