10th anniversary: The Iraq War changed how the U.S. Army trains

tadams@ledger-enquirer.comMarch 18, 2013 

As America was sending its sons and daughters into battle a decade ago, the U.S. Army’s expertise was based largely on the conventional philosophy of tank versus tank, foot soldier against foot soldier.

That changed in a flash. The invasion of Iraq’s capital of Baghdad, led by Fort Benning’s 3rd Brigade Heavy Combat Team, would give way to years of war fought often in smaller towns and cities.

Shadowy terrorist figures — mixing in at times with locals — replaced the uniformed Warsaw Pact adversaries the military had long trained to fight against in a major conflict. Improvised explosive devices (IEDs), or homemade bombs planted on roadways or worn by suicidal individuals, quickly became a deadly threat aimed at not only killing U.S. soldiers, but keeping them on edge and wounding morale.

The Army knew it had to adapt — and fast — with its ranks swelling with civilians-turned-soldiers, many of whom were deploying within 90 days of completing their basic and advanced combat training.

Naturally, those changes rippled swiftly to the Home of the Infantry at Fort Benning, changes that are entrenched in the way recruits are taught today.

Staff Sgt. Jesse Murray, who entered the military just before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, knows the lessons learned from Iraq — and subsequently from Afghanistan — as well as anyone. The Fort Benning Drill Sergeant of the Year deployed to Iraq three times and today is among those training troops how to survive in harm’s way.

“When I was a private, a lot of my squad leaders and leadership did not have any combat experience. And I remember during my first deployment to Iraq, there was a certain kind of anxiety,” said Murray, who was with the 2nd Infantry Division at Fort Lewis, Wash., when the Stryker — a speedy armored vehicle and troop carrier — made its appearance in Iraq.

Contrast that to today, when virtually all of the drill sergeants Murray works with have seen action in either Iraq and Afghanistan and have their combat infantryman’s badge.

Specifically, Murray said, one station unit training — which combines basic and advanced combat training into one continuous stream of instruction — shifted away from trench warfare and firing rifles from foxholes to using various shooting positions from barriers and around building corners.

Less emphasis was placed on the use of nuclear, biological and chemical masks, with more time spent using night-vision goggles and devices. The term “weapons immersion” also entered the Army’s terminology.

“When I went through originally, the only time we touched our weapons is when we went out to the range,” the drill sergeant said. “Now it’s a constant thing. Privates have their weapons on them all the time, and that reflects what they’re going to see in Iraq ... A lot of times they try to overrun the bases and we don’t have time to run back to our rooms, grab all of our ammo, get suited up, and run back out to wherever we need to be.”

Training on improvised explosion devices also ramped up and easily grabbed the attention of recruits, particularly with news stories from the warfront detailing how a mundane foot patrol or drive from one area to another ended up with soldiers losing an arm or a leg, and for some, their lives.

“Whenever we talk about IEDs, that’s generally when I’ll talk about the real-life effects where soldiers that I know have gotten hurt or injured permanently,” Murray said. “When we talk about (rocket-propelled grenades), I have a story that specifically relates to that. What I think it does is help make it real to them ... They do soak that up because it’s something that they know absolutely nothing about.”

The U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command projects the service will put nearly 85,000 recruits through basic combat training this fiscal year. That number will rise slightly in fiscal year 2014.

One station unit training, which includes both infantry and armor recruits at Fort Benning, will slow from just under 36,000 this year to slightly more than 30,000 in 2014, TRADOC projects.

Just as the infantry has altered its instruction, so has the U.S. Army Armor School, which relocated from Fort Knox, Ky., to Fort Benning in 2011 to create the Maneuver Center of Excellence and combine its heavier power with that of the ground troops.

First Sgt. Anthony Bell deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and did a stint as a drill sergeant just prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom. Today, he is a 316th Cavalry Bigade operations noncommissioned officer with a basic officer’s course for armor lieutenants at Fort Benning.

“When I was a drill sergeant, it was more about developing the soldier for the conventional Army,” he said. “There was an emphasis on identifying all the foreign enemy tanks for that conventional environment, that woodland environment, and maintaining your vehicles.”

Just as with the infantry, the armor’s training has expanded to include moving through an urban area, clearing buildings, and being able to connect with people in small towns to nurture relations and, hopefully, gather critical intelligence.

“I’m from the scout side of the armor branch, and that was a large part of our job, entering and securing buildings, which is an infantry task,” Bell said of the similarities between the two service rivals who now have been brought together at Fort Benning.

Bell said the integration of the armor with the infantry is beginning to gel, with each planning more and more training time together on their schedules. The goal is to create a more efficient, nimble and fighting force beyond the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Just as the U.S. Army did prior to those conflicts, it will continue to study what has worked and what hasn’t on the battlefield, then make necessary changes to training that will yield even better warriors, said Col. David Wilcox, chief of staff of the U.S. Army Initial Military Training Center of Excellence at Fort Eustis, Va. The center falls under TRADOC.

“We’re cosntantly looking at what we train and how we train it, based upon those tech-savvy young folks coming in,” he said. “I might add, though, they’re a little bit out of shape than those of us who came in 15 or 20 years ago. So we’re having to get them in shape.”

Wilcox commanded a training brigade at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri from 2009-2011, with engineers, military police officers, chemical specialists and medical personnel receiving basic and advanced training there. He also deployed both to Afghanistan and Iraq, and was in the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, when a commercial jet crashed into the building three corridors over from his office.

The need for changes in training became apparent early in the invasion of Iraq, Wilcox said, with the quick turnaround of recruits to the battle front. Aside from the necessity of preparing them for entering a city or dark buildings, the Army’s physical fitness program was revamped.

“It is geared more to conditions in a combat environment than it is to going out and running a 10k or a marathon,” he said, using the word “agility” to describe the desired goal of determining: “What are the conditions if I had to carry a buddy 50 or 60 meters to safety? Could I do that with a basic combat load on me?”

Wilcox said the Army now is in the middle of a six-month major review of its training program as it moves from an Army at war to a force working to be prepared for a possible new threat or conflict. The review could be complete by September, he said, although there is no concrete timeframe for rolling out any changes and the numbers of troops needed in the coming years.

“It’s a balancing act as we draw down the (soldier) numbers,” he said. “But I think the quality will get even better as we get stricter on standards coming in, and maintaining the standards throughout your career. With the drawdown in Iraq and Afghanistan, we will be more selective in our recruiting efforts.”

The strategy of training agile soldiers who can think fast on their feet and solve complex problems in combat — or during natural disasters — is a major positive change that came out of the dual wars on terrorism, said Lt. Gen. Robert Brown, commander of I Corps at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash.

“We hadn’t anticipated our soldiers would have to do that because of the complexity of the world and the environment,” said Brown, who commanded Fort Benning as it was blending the infantry and armor together into the Maneuver Center of Excellence.

“It’s the same thing businesses face, we all face,” he said. “The clerk at a company just can’t be the clerk anymore. They’ve got to be empowered or you’re not going to do well in today’s world. You’re going to be too slow and you can’t react fast enough to beat the enemy or anything we’re facing.”

Brown, whose career included a tour of duty in Bosnia prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operating Enduring Freedom, recalled a brigade commander in the European nation who became extremely frustrated because of the enormous amounts of information flowing into his headquarters.

“He was used to looking out into the desert and saying: Go left, go right, do this, do that. Well, he couldn’t do that anymore. We were all over the place, and we had to be independent or you couldn’t act fast enough. That picked up speed even more in Iraq and will forever, by the way, in warfare. We’re never going back. We have overwhelming amounts of information.”

That stream of information from various military and U.S. government sources trumps the days of taking a few scraps of intelligence, feeding it up the command chain, and then waiting for a decision for a battalion or brigade’s next move on the battlefield.

“So you retrain completely different with that,” the general said. “Instead of telling a soldier: Do these 10 steps. We’d say, here’s what we want you to accomplish. You figure it out, and back-brief us. Use your agility, you’re empowered, and finish the job. We started training that long before we deployed.”

Looking ahead, with federal budget cuts guaranteed, Brown said the good news is the U.S. has the most experienced Army it’s ever had. But the challenge will be maintaining that sharp edge amid a downsizing military that’s been at such a high tempo for more than a decade. He said it still must remain on guard for other threats in the Asian-Pacific region, such as North Korea, which maintains a belligerent world stance.

“Of course, you’ve got to cut,” he said. “But where’s the fine line where you get to the point where you go from the best in the world to — all of a sudden — you’re not anymore, because you can’t maintain.”

With his I Corps units, Brown said he’s already having to prioritize training. And it’s not an easy thing to do.

“My number one priority are those units heading to Afghanistan, of course,” he said. “But that means I have some units that will go from a highly trained level to a not-ready level. How long does it take to get them back? What if they’re called upon tomorrow? How much time do we have? That’s tough.”

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