National Guard training is deadly-serious business

Posted 6/16/09

But U.S. Army National Guard Troops study every detail of the terrain in front of them at this training site at Fort Hood, Texas, to detect any small signs indicating something deadly might be hidden on or near the road.

Their lives depend on it. …

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National Guard training is deadly-serious business


Most look innocent enough, if they are visible at all. A stripe of tape on a sign post; a long, thin, flattened tube lying in a crack in the road; a small electronic device hidden behind plants at the base of a power pole; another inserted in the end of a culvert.A passerby likely wouldn't even take notice of the small clues.

But U.S. Army National Guard Troops study every detail of the terrain in front of them at this training site at Fort Hood, Texas, to detect any small signs indicating something deadly might be hidden on or near the road.

Their lives depend on it. These small clues, if found in Iraq or Kuwait, could indicate the presence of improvised explosive devices planted to damage military equipment, wound soldiers and take lives.

Before training on the road, the soldiers first visit a “petting zoo,” where they become familiar with improvised explosive devices on display there and some of the methods terrorists use to construct and detonate them. Once they know what they're looking for, the soldiers then take to their Humvees, where the gunner looks through his scope to detect anything suspicious ahead or to the side of the road. As the gunner finds indicators of possible IEDs, he calls out his findings to his companions in the vehicle, who write them in a log.

On June 2, the soldiers' training is observed by a group of employers of deployed National Guard members from Wyoming, along with a few members of the media, who flew to Fort Hood to watch the training and visit with their employees.

Explaining the process is Sgt. 1st Class Eric Long of Fort Lewis, Wash., who is on hand to help with the training.

As the employer group walks along the road, Long points out the things the soldiers are trying to spot. Some, such as a tire on the side of the road seemingly filled with junk, are easy to spot. But most are far more subtle.

The long flat tube is flexible, and in a real-life situation, could contain trigger wires that, when compressed by a vehicle's tires, would complete an electronic circuit to detonate an IED.

The device hidden near a power pole includes a two-way radio, which, if real, would be set to detonate an IED when a watching terrorist sends a signal over the other radio.

If an IED is found in a real-life situation, the soldiers call for a bomb squad to disarm it.

Watching the training leaves the group a little haunted by the knowledge that, if missed, similar devices could mean injury or death to Wyoming soldiers as they provide convoy security from Kuwait to Iraq and back.

The soldiers will complete their training within a week or two, after which they will be stationed in Kuwait.

But there are ways that the Army fights back to protect the soldiers.

Long points out a tall, chimney-like stack on the back of a Humvee, which contains a signal scrambler designed to block electronic signals sent to trigger explosive devices. It also contains a small computer, or personal data assistant, which records signals it is programed to recognize, as well as the locations and times they were detected.

The most obvious protection is the armored construction of Humvees, as well as the protective gear each soldier is required to wear, including a helmet and a kevlar vest.

But that gear causes its own problems. When a soldier is wearing and carrying full gear, it adds 85 pounds to his or her weight, and makes it more easy to overheat in the Texas summer sun, which has raised the temperature to a humid 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

A trainer warns soldiers to make sure they drink enough water, which is provided at every station along the training route.

“If you go down, you will get stuck,” she said.

Long notes that all soldiers are trained to start IVs to rehydrate their comrades when they are overcome by heat.

One of the best defenses against deadly IEDs, of course, is the training the soldiers are undergoing now to help them detect danger and prevent injury.

That is especially true in the case of a new improvised weapon now in use by terrorists. The “explosively formed projectile” appears innocent enough, but when triggered by heat or motion sensors, the mound-like object can hurl 4-inch disks with such velocity that no protective gear can stop it.

“It's the most deadly thing they've had,” he said.

Long says that, when the war in Iraq first started, there was no training available to prepare troops for what they would encounter there.

Now, Fort Hood helps train them for the real-life experiences they are likely to face, increasing their chances to stay alive and come home to their families.