Battle Focused, but not Misery Inducing, Training

Craig here.  Let me expand a bit on what XBrad mentioned yesterday about the “train as you fight” approach (or you the converse “you will fight as you train”), I’ve seen some leaders take that out to a place beyond rational sense and reason.  As I like to put it, they try to “train in misery.”   And I’m sure this conjures up thoughts of MREs, armpit deep foxholes, and 24-hr stand-to.  Or standing orders prohibiting “poggie bait” in the field.  To some degree, such self-inflicted misery is counter-productive.  Yes, it can hit unit morale right in the face, but it also can lead to bad habits.

For example, let me recall an incident from “the old days.”  Shortly after I’d moved over from a cushy combat arms job to the tough and thankless ranks of the Signal Corps, I was placed in charge of a theater level tactical communications platoon.  I won’t bore you with the details regarding transition from the joyful role of launching projectiles down range to that of sitting atop some hill underneath camouflage netting and highly visible antennas.  Bottom line, as platoon leader I put a lot of emphasis on things I did know (like site defense, noise and light discipline, and weapons maintenance) while I struggled to get up to speed on the technical stuff regarding all those gizmos in the equipment shelters.

All in all, I was very proud of that platoon.  The troops went along with the LT – drew up range cards and laid concertina wire.  And they were more than happy to offer up technical advice.  Our circuits were always setup on time.  Our convoys never missed a checkpoint.  And we at least “looked” like we were ready for a fight.

The day came for platoon and team ARTEPs (Army Training and Evaluation Program).  The signal company’s version of “squad lanes” is really a site setup drill.  While the overall objective is, of course, to setup a communication link to the outside world (the “phone call of victory” if you will), the team must demonstrate the ability to establish and secure the site.  All the while driving 6 foot grounding rods, putting up 100-foot tall antennas, and running power cables.  And of course this was the Army of the 1990s – deathly afraid of those nasty chemical agents.  So the M8 alarms went up.

All went well until the third team cycled through their evaluation.  The Observer Controller (OC) decided to “mix things up a bit” and turned on the chemical alarm’s siren.  The crew reacted as if they’d anticipated this, moving from Mission-Oriented Protective Posture (MOPP)-2 to -4 then submitting an NBC-1 report within two minutes.  I smiled broadly while relaying the report to higher HQ over the radios.

The team leader then called on the radio asking for guidance.  At that time the lead OC, who was evaluating me, simply said, “they should continue the mission.”  In the back of my mind something told me that was wrong, but the override switch engaged, I told the team to press on with site setup.  And the team pressed on with their next task – standing up a 100-foot tall antenna mast.

Minutes later, the OC came on the radio, excitedly ordering a tactical freeze and for all safety personnel to converge on the lane.  The antenna mast, made of kevlar mind you, had broken nearly falling upon the crew.  Several team members were grazed by the guy lines as they fell.  Although dazed and disoriented, luckily nobody was hurt.

What happened?  Anyone who has worn a M40 Chemical Protective Mask might imagine.  With their peripheral vision constrained and working under the other disorienting effects of wearing the chemical suits, the crew didn’t notice a bow to the antenna mast.  At about the 80 foot level, gravity played a nasty trick.  Under the burdon of an 70 pound antenna head, the mast snapped like a twig.

We cleared the site, pulled the team out to rest, and allowed them to run the lane on a subsequent day – which they passed with good marks.  Pretty much all was done except for the report of survey.  Ah, yes the report of survey.  And I had an axe to grind.

Approaching the poor survey officer as if I were Perry Mason on cross-examination, I made a couple of very blunt points:

  • While the ARTEP manual does provide a “react to chemical attack” drill and a “operate in a chemical environment” checklist, there was nothing detailing how to “setup a communication site in a contaminated area.”
  • Operators manuals for the equipment in question did detail steps to operate in rain, wind, and snow, BUT not in a chemically contaminated environment.

In short, why the heck were we setting up that antenna after getting “slimed”?  The answer of course was “the training was supposed to be realistic, LT!”  So I played the ace card.

Battalion tactical standing operating procedures clearly stated that upon contact with a chemical agent, the unit was to break contact with the enemy if possible and proceed to a decontamination point.  No, the team was not supposed to muscle that site into operation then sit there quietly while the “slime” at through the charcoal lined protective over-garments.  NO!  They were supposed to get out of the cloud and get cleaned up!  Better get that M17 sanator off the deadline list and fire it up!  That would be realistic training!

Game, set, and match.  Survey officer found nobody at fault.  (I think they sent the antenna mast back to Fort Gordon for BDAR training or something.)  Guidance came down from the Battalion S-3 regarding chemical attack drills, making the chemical officer all giddy with excitement.   In the end, our battalion produced some very focused, battle-ready crew drills.

And I learned a valuable lesson.  The misery will come naturally.  Leaders don’t have to go out of their way to impose more of it on the training situation in the name of “realism.”  Further, leaders need to be aware that their actions, even above and outside the training lane, are indeed part of that battle focused training.

5 thoughts on “Battle Focused, but not Misery Inducing, Training”

  1. Reading your post, I’ll agree with you that if you as a leader are imposing additional “misery’ on your subordinates, it should be tasks that fall within the realm of your required skill set, and likely battle drills. On first reading, it seems as if you are saying that NBC conditions in and of themselves are too much misery, but I assume you are not actually saying that, but rather “lets do tasks that we really would do under NBC conditions.” I personally subscribe to the belief that you are not a “T” at any task until you have done it under night and NBC conditions, so I would be all for putting up your antenna under NBC conditions because, given the limited number of decon assets, even in the old days, you were going to have to operate in a dirty environment. Even with the sanator, which is for operational decon only (quick vehicle spraydown and MOPP gear exchange and back into a contaminated environment), not thorough/detailed decon. Anway, my training has always included a high degree of events over and above “routine” execution because I firmly believe in train-as-you-fight. This extends to little details like not carrying a bunch of junk food in the ready racks in combat vehicles. Don’t train to have things other than ammo stored where the ammo actually goes. Bring as much as you want, but figure out where the right place is to carry it!
    If I was the survey officer, I would have found loss to the government very early on in your described survey!

    1. “…but I assume you are not actually saying that, but rather “lets do tasks that we really would do under NBC conditions.””
      Indeed.

      “I personally subscribe to the belief that you are not a “T” at any task until you have done it under night and NBC conditions, so I would be all for putting up your antenna under NBC conditions because, given the limited number of decon assets, even in the old days, you were going to have to operate in a dirty environment. ”

      For a divisional signal asset, I agree with you. But for a theater level asset, not so fast. If the bad guy slimes a hilltop to deny its use for comms, likely such was done under the assumption no comms equipment was on site. Otherwise, they would have used HE and destroyed said equipment, then slimed it. Either way, that the enemy has identified the point as a potential comms site means it’s value to friendly forces is correspondingly diminished.

      For a divisional unit, that may be an acceptable risk. Divisions tend to shift around enough even in defense, so the node centers, relays, etc. don’t plan to sit in one place for long (although I would argue “garrisonized” CPXs have served to train the corps/divisional units bad habits in that regard).

      For a EAC tactical comms unit, which is really just an extension of the garrison comms structure, those shelters may be on a hilltop for weeks if not months. I can find plenty of other hilltops to work the comms from. Not so plenty are multi-million dollar comms shelters and troops trained to use them. As such the EAC mode of operation was “bound away to communicate another day.”

  2. Just a note, I’m very much an “inside the box” thinker. I was lucky that I was very interested in learning all sorts of obscure thing, and read every manual that found its way to me, so I had a pretty big box to think in. But someone once asked me why I never tried out for Special Forces. Mostly because I quickly realized I just didn’t have the mindset for it.

    As to misery for misery’s sake, nothing like MOPP PT…

  3. My favorite was that the training schedule called for yearly MOPP-4 training (as well it should), but that the standard called for us to perform our “regular duties” while in MOPP-4. As an above Corps echelon intelligence unit that worked inside a SCIF, that was laughable. What made it even funnier was that we worked Joint Service, so we had a shop full of Army in MOPP-4 while the squids, zoomies and jarheads walked around in BDUs and utils. It was neither onerous nor particularly uncomfortable (though typing with pencils is kind of funny), so I’m certainly not complaining. But it just goes to show that the Big Green Machine prefers one size fits all standards.

  4. With regards to not training for NBC tasks based on your EAC job, that is a pretty valid point, with the caveat that we also have the obligation to train our Soldiers for their next job, too. When our Echelons-Above Corps signaleer PCSs to be the NCOIC of a line battalion’s commo section, he should have familiarity with those general military skills. Not necessarily involving the multi-million dollar antenna array, but in general.
    One reason I ETS’d as an 11B in 1990 and went and got a commission as a tanker was because I wasn’t positive that being an infantry squad leader in The Old Guard had prepared me to go be a team leader or squad leader in a “normal” infantry unit. (Turns out, it had, but I wasn’t confident of that at the time).
    So, if this means that the army guys go to MOPP 4, or do whatever, while the other services, or the EAC guys go about their thing, drive on!

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