FORT IRWIN, Calif.—Hunting the enemy through the arid wadis of the Mojave Desert, Cpt. Patrick Merriss realized he was fighting a different kind of war than he and his young troopers had ever experienced when they faced their foe. The enemy was an organized army in armored vehicles and they were as technologically cunning and mechanically lethal as Merriss’ soldiers were.
“It was pretty surprising and exciting,” said Merriss, commander of Delta Company, 1-12 Cavalry, a tank company with 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division out of Fort Hood, Texas. “It was definitely a new concept for us, maneuvering our units over open terrain, using all of our weapon systems against the enemy.”
This is decisive action training and it’s the future of Army operations. During their 30-day rotation at Southern California’s National Training Center (NTC), 3rd Brigade soldiers, or the Greywolves as they call themselves, were riding the pulse of it.
The Texas unit completed its Jan. 7- Feb. 8 rotation at NTC last week. The center is one of two unique Army sites in the States that plunges units into elaborate deployment scenarios, complete with role-players, who play civilians or enemy combatants. Units are evaluated 24-hours a day by veteran soldiers called observer-coach-teachers, or OCs.
Upon their arrival at NTC last month, nearly 5,000 soldiers with 3rd Brigade are dropped into “the box” or the wilds of the Mojave Desert, handed a problem, and given just 14 days to solve it.
The Greywolves’ mission was to assist Atropia, an imaginary country on the brink of civil war, fend off an invasion from Donovia, a bullying neighbor. It was in this scenario that 3rd Brigade’s soldiers got up close and personal with decisive action warfare.
Decisive action can look like a more traditional fight where opposing armies bring out the big guns against each other. However, decisive action also involves counter-insurgency operations, where the enemy is hidden among the very people soldiers are trying to protect.
“You can be shaking hands and kissing babies in this village and then go to the next and be fighting T-80s and BMPs [Soviet era combat vehicles],” said 1st Sgt. Michael Lucas.
As the U.S. moves away from counter-insurgency operations as seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, decisive action is multi-layered training geared to prepare soldiers for an unforeseen future.
“The intent of decisive action is to train up units so when they get here and they go through this environment they are prepared for any conflict worldwide,” said Maj. Ray G. McCulloch II, an NTC Observer-Coach.
In the box, 3rd Brigade soldiers had to be ready for anything—guerilla warfare, an all out force-on-force invasion from an organized enemy, not to mention chemical and biological attacks.
Less than 48-hours after landing in Atropia, the enemy rocketed 3rd Brigade’s main camp. Chaos ensued. Several soldiers were wounded. In reality, the god-like OCs gave random soldiers plastic limbs, fake blood and cards detailing the horrific injuries they’d been stricken with. Fellow soldiers scrambled to carry the casualties to the aid station.
“We’re going to take care of you first sergeant. You’ll be okay,” medic Spc. Robert Felt firmly reassured one bloody casualty whose arm was ripped off his body.
“It was a little overwhelming,” the medic from Burlington, N.C. said after helping evacuate his patient. An Iraq war veteran, Felt says his NTC experience has been like an actual deployment, which is precisely what 3rd Brigade’s leaders were hoping for.
“Soldiers want to be G.I. Joes and G.I. Janes. They want to get their adrenaline pumping,” said Lt. Col. Michael A. Payne, commander of 3rd Brigade’s Special Troops Battalion. “My motto since before we arrived here has been ‘train like your life depends on it’ because some day it will,” Payne said.
If one day his life or the lives of his soldiers depends on what they’ve learned at NTC then 3rd Brigade commanders like Cpt. Merriss say they’re ready for it.
“I feel as though I’ve experienced something that most Army company commanders have not,” said Merriss.
After 14 days of slugging it out with the enemy through the sands of the Mojave Desert, the Birmingham, Ala. native feels privileged to be a part of a handful of units to have gone through the new decisive action rotation at NTC.
“You can’t put a price on the experience,” Merriss said.