National Guard trainings shift as war tactics change

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

Behind the first door on the right, a man is holding a child at gunpoint. In the room across the hall, behind the spring-loaded door, a man holds a coffee mug.

In each room of this makeshift plywood-covered building at the Ethan Allen Firing Range in Jericho, different “people” on cardboard cutouts represent scenarios soldiers might face in combat, scenarios that are increasingly difficult to predict.

At a training session earlier this month, seven Vermont Army National Guard soldiers are gathered outside the building with Sgt. John Kidder, an instructor at the VNG Army Mountain Warfare School.

“What I’m asking you to do is look at the whole person, then the hands,” Kidder tells his trainees.

Kidder is teaching close-quarters combat skills to groups of the Guard’s artillery battalion soldiers. Williston is home to the Headquarters Battery of the Vermont Army National Guard 1-86th Field Artillery Battalion. The Williston battery soldiers, along with those from Vergennes, Waterbury and Berlin, were gathered at Ethan Allen Firing Range last month for their annual two-week training exercises.

The artillery battalion supports lightweight towed artillery pieces, or howitzers. The units fire 4-inch diameter high explosive shells that blow shrapnel in a roughly 100-foot radius around the target. Soldiers in the Williston battery are specialists in communications and operations, radar, survey, medical assistance, and administration – those functions that support the accurate and proper work of the howitzers and the battalion as a whole. The Waterbury and Vergennes soldiers are the firing specialists.

As Kidder instructed the seven soldiers how to enter and clear a building, about 150 of their artillery battalion colleagues were spread throughout the 12,000-acre property firing howitzers, learning to shoot targets at unknown distances, and practicing general marksmanship. Earlier in training, on other eight or nine-hour training days, soldiers learned land navigation and other “mountain skills,” like rappelling off 160-foot cliff.

This type of training for artillery battalion soldiers wasn’t happening even a decade ago, according to Maj. James P. McLaughlin, the battalion executive officer.

“We’ve refocused since 9/11 on every soldier’s individual skills,” McLaughlin said. While soldiers are still trained on battery-level skills, he said, squad and individual skills are a necessity in a world of shifting war tactics. “Every soldier needs to increase his skills to be able to fight (his way) out of (an unexpected) situation.”

Tactics have changed

Roughly 75 percent of the current artillery battalion has been deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan or Kuwait, according to Headquarters Battery Cpt. Miles Trudell. Some soldiers have gone more than once. When they return home, Trudell said, “they always tell me it’s completely different than the last time we were there. In a year’s time the techniques have changed, the tactics have changed.”

That may be why Kidder repeats the mantra “we need thinkers who are shooters and shooters who are thinkers” as he teaches a four-man team of trainees how to “stack up” when they’re about to enter a room that may or may not house an enemy.

With the outline of a room marked with tape in the dirt outside the practice building, Kidder asks the team to group together strategically. The “number one man” is in front, leading the pack into the room; the “hall boss” keeps his eyes peeled down an imagined hallway; a soldier is behind his back, facing the opposite way; a fourth man leads up the rear. They practice entering the imagined room swiftly, each checking a section of the room before hollering out “right side clear,” “left side clear” or “all clear” to the hall boss remaining outside.

When they prepare to stack up for another entry, Kidder asks them to switch which soldier will enter the room first. Every soldier needs to know “two jobs up,” Kidder tells them, in case those above them are injured or killed. There’s another reason Kidder believes switching around the “number one man” is important.

“Doing multiple entries in a combat zone, when the adrenaline’s going, doors are getting kicked, bangers are going off, rounds are getting fired, dudes getting smoked, friendlies getting hit, friendlies getting smoked, kids crying, screaming, dogs getting shot … the number one man is going to get fried pretty quick, right?” Kidder says. “’Cause he knows it’s just a matter of time before ‘I go through the door and catch one right in the mouth.’ Or the knee or whatever. It’s bad stuff, right? So after about two or three hours of clearing, a lot shorter than that, you’re a mess, right? You guys would probably be a certified basket case at that point, all right? Fetal position sucking on your thumb, all right? So it’s important that we switch that job out.”

Nineteen-year-old Liam Vendeville of Barre completed his first annual training exercises last month as a member of the Williston battery. The basics of close-quarters shooting, he said, are easy to get down; it’s the complications he doesn’t like.

“I kept thinking ‘I hope I don’t have to do this in real life,’” Vendeville said, reflecting on his thoughts during that exercise. “In real life there’s going to be all sorts of furniture, people you don’t want to shoot because they haven’t done anything. Having basics is good, but just going through it in real life probably would be pretty scary.”

Trainings and missions change, too

Vendeville said he found the mountain training skills portion of annual training – knot-tying techniques, rappelling and climbing – most helpful.

“It’s always something good to know if you have to use it anywhere,” he said. “It applies to civilian and military life.”

Staff Sgt. Warren Rotax, 49, of St. George said he’s seen a lot of change through the roughly 20 annual trainings he’s attended. When he first joined the Army National Guard in the 1970s, he said, annual training was “a big party.”

“To be honest, we used to go out, shoot howitzers and drink,” Rotax said. “Now we’re really training with the real professionals (who’ve been through combat). It’s very intense. … Especially this year, the training was very realistic.”

With the switch toward training soldiers on survival skills, Rotax said, “you have more confidence in what you’re doing.”

That confidence – and the trust in the organization that comes with it – is an important byproduct of training, according to Trudell. Having a wide range of skills makes soldiers more flexible as missions shift. Most of the battalion’s more recent deployments, Trudell said, have not been for artillery; military police work like convoy security and base protection has been a primary responsibility.

“Training is a lot more specific to the environment and basically what the mission is,” Trudell said. “Our mission as a field artillery has changed a lot as well.”

Williston armory details