12-30-2004: Training Failures Left Guard Unit Unready for Iraq
Back home in Michigan, the men of F Company, 425th Infantry, Long Range Surveillance, Michigan Army National Guard, are heroes. But in Iraq, they call themselves “The Kings of the Damned.”
How they fell from glory is a stain on the proud history of the U.S. Army and clearly reflects the Pentagon’s inability to meet its mission goals in Iraq with a force largely constituted of Reservists and National Guardsmen who found themselves under-trained, under-equipped, and unprepared for the rigors of battling the Iraqi insurgents.
What is especially shocking is that F Company has long been an elite, airborne-trained, three-time volunteer fighting force, one of only a handful of airborne-qualified units in the Army National Guard.Its roster includes lawyers, physicists, police officers, fireman, and in fact the entire gamut of professions shared by the best and brightest of
America’s sons who enlisted as part-time soldiers in case their country called. Just two years and three months after 9/11, they responded to the summons.
On Dec. 10, 2003, amidst a flag-bedecked ceremony filled with patriotic fervor, more than 300 families from all over Michigan gathered to send their sons, brothers and fathers in harm’s way. Maj. Gen. Thomas G. Cutler, adjutant general of the Michigan National Guard, told the men their mission was one they had trained long and hard to be ready for despite their knowledge it would be a long and difficult struggle: “You hope there isn’t a fire but you have trained hard and you’re eager to fight it,” Cutler told the assembled men and their families. He then presented the unit with a Michigan National Guard flag to be flown in Iraq.
The next morning, filled with the curious combination of anticipation and trepidation that for centuries has marked the warrior’s entrance into war, F Company arrived at Fort Bliss, Tex., to begin a two-month period of intense training the Army claims is designed to prepare the deploying soldiers for the rigors of combat.
“We were very motivated and eager to venture forth into the unknown and test that which we were made of. For years we trained in our specialized tasks of reconnaissance and surveillance,” one senior enlisted soldier wrote in a detailed but unofficial After Action Report (AAR) obtained by DefenseWatch (click here for the AAR Text). “We used the Army template of the 72-hour isolation and planning and the 48- to 96-hour long mission’s cycle. The men of the 425th could execute this type of mission in their sleep and had executed this type of training on average of three times a year for the last eight years,” added the NCO, who asked that his name not be used.
The Army calls the training offered deploying soldiers like those in F Company “Theater Immersion Training.” It has become the watchword of the Army generals charged with preparing America’s part-time citizen-soldiers for their fulltime role as warfighters is Iraq and Afghanistan. Last fall, Lt. Gen. Russell L. Honoré, Commanding General of First U.S. Army, shared his vision with other leaders at the First U.S. Army Commander’s Conference in Atlanta.
“When soldiers get off the bus at the MOB (mobilization) station, they must feel they have arrived in Iraq or Afghanistan,” Honoré told the assembled officers.
To do that the Army has created at Fort Bliss and other stateside bases a mock Iraqi village and compound similar to what Vietnam-bound neophyte infantryman discovered when they passed under a giant Combat Infantryman’s Badge at the portals of Fort Polk, La., three decades ago. The badge and the sign beneath it marked the way to “Tigerland,” the home of the Vietnamese village that weary trainees would get to know better than their girlfriends back home.
“Instead of living in a normal garrison environment, soldiers will see concertina wire, entry control points, and guard towers to simulate the Forward Operating Base (FOB) environment,” Honoré explained in Atlanta. “In an FOB, small-unit leaders not only train on theater-specific tasks, [but] they have an opportunity to exercise their troop-leading procedures and basic discipline on a continuous basis.”
Unfortunately, according to a number of F Company soldiers, they found instead what one later described as a “circus of stupidity” at the Texasbase. If the troops of are to be believed, they were immersed in a bureaucratic tangle of ill-prepared quarters, non-existent training situations, very little practice ammunition, no hand grenades, limited range time, broken trucks and equipment, and cast-off weapons they rarely if ever had the chance to fire.
Their training, documented in detail over the months that followed, was the antithesis of the vision offered by Lt. Gen. Honoré. Col. Al Jones, First U.S. Army’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations described it thusly:
“Theater Immersion is a dynamic training approach that gives us greater flexibility to train soldiers. With theater immersion we can create more events, longer events, ramp up the volume or turn it down based on the training needs of soldiers and units. Our goal is that soldiers respond to threats intuitively, regardless of the situation in which they might find themselves.”
“We have a non-negotiable contract with the American people to prepare her sons and daughters for war,” Honoré added. “We must use imagination and innovation to do this better than we ever have before. We cannot, we will not fail in this task.”
This is how one grizzled sergeant from F Company, a former U.S. Army Ranger and Special Forces-qualified soldier, described his unit’s subsequent training experience at Fort Bliss: “Bullshit.”
F Company trained at what used to be known as McGregor Range, an empty, hostile area of scrub and sand the men who trained there said replicates Iraq quite well. In other times and wars, McGregor was used to train basic trainees in marksmanship and anti-aircraft specialists in the art of shooting down warplanes.
A spokesman for the 91st Division (Troop Support), the California Army Reserve unit charged with training F Company, described McGregor as a “recreated Iraq.” He added, “They have built six or eight buildings to represent an Iraqi village where the troops do cordon and search exercises. The buildings have no roofs so that the observers/controllers can stay on catwalks and observe the exercise. They have shoot houses with six-inch thick walls to fire in.”
One 91st Division official, who said he was not authorized to give his name, said the Fort Bliss exercise areas are very useful in preparing soldiers for what they will encounter when they arrive in Iraq. In a later communication the spokesman reported that the 91st’s deputy chief of staff indicated that the California-based training support command would not be able to officially respond to the allegations contained in the AAR.
“It seems that there is a congressional investigation underway, and the division does not want to stir the pot unnecessarily. That said, I can tell you that F [Company] received good training that was approved at FORSCOM level. They received nearly a half a million dollars worth of new gear prior to departure.”
Jean Offut, a spokeswoman for Fort Bliss, said the 91st Division and other reserve units have done an outstanding job training more than 50,000 soldiers preparing for deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan. She said civilian employees and military technicians and engineers spent $400,000 preparing F Company’s equipment and weapons for deployment overseas. “Ninety to 100 percent of their equipment was certified [for combat deployment],” she reported.
Not so, a senior F Company NCO noted in his unofficial AAR.
“Our experience here at McGregor has been one of absolute agony by way of ‘bullshit.’ The personnel here cannot be trusted to plan a square dance. This generalization applies to the highest command of this fiasco called a ‘MOB.’ The soldiers of the 425th are only prepared for their deployment for operations in harm’s way because of their own efforts. Very little credit can be given to the MOB site except for issues pertaining to supply and maintenance.”
If that assessment weren’t scathing enough, several members of F Company described their training experiences at McGregor as “fruitless, worthless, useless, and a waste of time that only benefited the cadre who seemed to enjoy inflicting chickenshit nonsense on us to pass the time of day.” Those comments represent some of the more constructive criticisms offered by the men of F Company.
The detailed, 22-page AAR sent to Pentagon planners by members of F Company describes the Michigan soldiers’ training experience in grisly detail, covering everything from the MOB to the poor quality of the barracks, mess halls, medical care, training facilities, equipment, gymnasium and transportation. In addition, the AAR describes the condition of the weapons provided, the amount of ammunition F Company soldiers expended in training, and the quality of the instruction provided by the reservists of the 91st Division, a non-combat training command filled with inexperienced reservists called up to train the war fighters for missions they themselves had never performed using weapons and tactics they had never used. The kindest thing said of them in the report is that they showed up for work most of the time.
One paragraph about the availability of training ammunition described in the AAR sums up the frustrating situation in which F Company found itself:
“Ammo for training is key when training for combat.”
“We are not a CS (combat support) or a CSS (combat services support) unit: We are Infantry – ‘we fight.’ I cannot put it any simpler than that. While here, we fired 24 rounds to zero and 40 rounds to qualify. We were then given 120 rounds of blank ammo for the entire SASO training block. Who in their right mind signed off on this?
“We have been called away from our homes and families for hostile operations. We are owed a chance to be trained properly and given the tools to obtain that objective. I, and all the soldiers resent the fact that we are just ‘checking the blocks’ to be moved into theater. As an 11B [infantry MOS] we are suppose to fire the AT-4, use a claymore mine, throw hand grenades, fire the [Mk-]203 grenade launcher, fire our crew-served weapons, fire the Mk-19 grenade launcher, fire a .50 cal machine gun; almost none of which has taken place. While in theater we will be expected to execute any number of tasks, most will involve infantry duties and accomplishing the bare minimum is not an option when my soldiers are in the game. May God have mercy on your souls, you miserable wretches.”
In response to a DefenseWatch request for comment on the AAR by F Company commander Maj. Thomas Woodward, senior MIARNG officials provided this written statement from Col. James R. Anderson, assistant adjutant general, which stated in part:
“Soldiers are encouraged to voice their opinions and concerns. Based upon the concerns of our soldiers, issues have been discovered and addressed. The Chief of National Guard Bureau and other General Officers have visited the training site at Fort Bliss. After seeing the site, talking to soldiers and observing training, they were assured the soldiers are being prepared to successfully complete their missions in theater.”
This is one Company F soldier’s response from Iraq: “The final point [is] that the part-time soldier comes at his countries calling at a moments notice. [He] gives up his civilian life, leaves his family and more then likely will lose his job to come here. Some have left life and limb in this accursed place. Then to add insult to injury, he is given next to no training, poor equipment and expected to execute a mission as well as the active component. If he falls short he can expect to be court-martialed or face lesser forms of military justice. The officers in charge can rest easy because the enlisted part timers will take the fall.”
Next: F Company struggles through training and is suddenly deployed to the combat zone Iraq, where the lack of training is compounded by deliberate mistreatment at the hands of an active Army unit to which the soldiers are assigned.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article mistakenly reported that Company F was the only Airborne-qualified unit in the ARNG. Other Airborne-qualified units include the 19th and 20th Special Forces Groups, the LRS detachments found in each ARNG division, the 128th Quartermaster Detachment (Light Airdrop Supply) in California, as well as F-425th’s sister unit, Co H, 121st Infantry (GAARNG).
1-03-2005: Broken Weapons, Ammo Shortages, Latrine Security
While the proud National Guard warriors of F Company, 425th Infantry sweated out so-called “Immersion Training” at Fort Bliss, Tex. for several months beginning in late December 2003, they griped and groused and wished they were already in Iraq, away from the seemingly pointless training chickenshit in which they were being buried alive.
Instead of weapons training, small unit tactics, weapons familiarization activities and live-fire exercises, they found themselves attending lecture classes. Rather than shooting hundreds of rounds of live ammunition, they were limited to zeroing in their personal weapons with a mere 24 rounds, qualifying with 40 rounds, and firing all of 120 blanks wearing MILES gear while pretending they were on a search-and-cordon operation in Iraq. The M-60 machine gunners were issued 200 rounds for live fire and in squad training the troopers fired 100 rounds of M-16 ammunition. F Company spent the rest of its 10 weeks getting shots, physicals, filling out paperwork, listening to excuses, performing first-echelon maintenance and otherwise uselessly spinning its wheels – or at least trying to get them to spin – as one F Company soldier observed.
Meanwhile, the Army trainers at Fort Bliss, reservists from the 91st Division (Troop Support) based in northern California, tried to prepare the men for what they would encounter in Iraq. The training is based on the Army’s model of what soldiers who find themselves in Iraq can do to protect themselves from insurgents who excel in attacking convoys and security teams lashed together from transportation units and other support personnel unfamiliar with the finer points of close combat. The trainers themselves were admittedly unfamiliar with the scenarios they were required to present and even less qualified in infantry tactics and doctrine that F Company’s 140 troopers – one of only a handful of Airborne units in the Army National Guard – have long excelled in.
“There are many instances of a tasks being taught one way at one station and that same task is being enforced in a completely different manner at another station.” a senior F Company NCO wrote in an unofficial After Action Report (AAR) on his unit’s experiences at Fort Bliss and later in Iraq. Here’s how training inconsistencies cropped up at Fort Bliss:
“For example, we just completed the squad live-fire exercise, we were taught how to bound and move in squad and team size elements. The day after we completed the squad live fire, we moved on to the vehicle live-fire range, where they are enforcing a completely different standard on how to move under fire. Vehicle live fire focuses on individual movement as a squad, while the squad live fire focuses on moving and bounding in fire teams …. On the other hand, the CS and CSS units that have never done this are becoming confused on which technique is to be used. The stations should coordinate on how the soldiers are being taught and enforce the same standard across the board. This will help cement the tasks into the minds of the soldiers; a basic case of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing!”
Last week, a 91st Division spokesman described F Company as a “good unit” that was subjected to the same training and experiences as all the other activated National Guard and reserve components passing through Fort Bliss. The spokesman, who asked not to be identified, told DefenseWatch F Company one time demonstrated its zeal by voluntarily clearing away brush from the firing ranges by hand so it could practice firing live rounds.
Despite that glowing anecdote, there was unfortunately, very little training ammunition to be had. The men were never able to fire any AT-4 anti-tank rounds despite the fact the M136 AT-4 is the Army’s primary light anti-tank weapon. Nor did F Company shoot its M-19 grenade launchers or throw any hand grenades, not even dummies, F Company troopers reported.
But F Company did receive a heavy dose of regular Army discipline. The strict discipline Michigan’s elite sky troopers were subjected to at Fort Bliss’ McGregor Range training area was necessary to “put their heads back in the game,” a second 91st Division spokesman said. The “game” apparently included breaking down the citizen-soldiers’ independent streak, exemplified by their desire to go to the latrine without supervision.
It seems a corrective action was considered necessary to keep soldiers being trained from wandering off during duty hours. That led to an order that mandated that soldiers wishing to use the latrine had to turn over their ID cards before doing their business, one F Company soldier reported. The order included senior non-commissioned officers as well as junior enlisted men, a situation that enraged F Company’s experienced troopers more than perhaps any other situation they encountered at FortBliss.
“The [ID card] action took the cake,” the soldier told his superiors in a confidential correspondence obtained by DefenseWatch. “We of the 425thcan go into harm’s way; most of us have 15 years or more years in the military system and we have to turn in our ID card to use the toilet. Who is the numbskull who cooked that up? It sounds to me like something a West Pointer would do. I would like to thank whoever came up with this from the bottom of my heart for destroying our last spark of morale, and humiliating us one last time, before we depart your festering stinkhole.”
Unfortunately, leaving Fort Bliss was not as easy as jumping in their newly assigned vehicles and driving away to their embarkation station with their carefully prepared weapons. The equipment they were issued was rife with problems, particularly among crew-served weapons, vehicles and communications gear, according to the F Company AAR obtained by DefenseWatch. Upon receiving their weapons, several F Company NCOs with operational experience in Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan and Iraq in airborne infantry units inspected the weapons for functionality. What they discovered was a laundry list of appallingly dangerous problems for an infantry company preparing to encounter close-quarters combat.
Out of 21 M-60 machine guns receipted to F Company, 13 were either below minimum standards or completely inoperable, the AAR said. Only three of the essential weapons were completely functional. And this was after the weapons had been returned from repairs at the Fort Bliss support facility known as the “CUBE.” Some of the problems included broken firing pins, worn ejectors, cracked barrels, weak operating rod springs, broken locking lugs and a host of lesser evils. Several M-9 pistols and 20 of the unit’s M-203 grenade launchers also had deficiencies after being repaired. F Company’s armorer was able to fix most of the deficiencies with scrounged parts and experience, but several of the crew-served weapons were shipped still broken, the AAR added.
One senior F Company NCO said that the “weapons were turned in with 2404 and 2407 forms [repair/maintenance request forms] completely and correctly filled out. These noted all deficiencies and all weapons were returned untouched with the exception of one or two weapons.”
Ditto for F Company’s five-ton trucks and Humvees. Almost 50 percent of them broke down almost within sight of McGregor Range while on a test run before the unit deployed.
“The maintenance people at Bliss had plugged oil leaks with grease, signed off on broken parts like they were fixed, and told us we would have a better chance to get everything fixed once we arrived in Kuwait for our pre-deployment workup,” one soldier said. “We got a lot of excuses.”
“We turned our vehicles in for maintenance, we played the game and filled out all the paperwork in triplicate and were told we were good to go,” the AAR stated. “On Feb 2, 2004, we signed our vehicles out for a test drive. Thank God we did, because almost half developed problems within 10 miles of leaving the facility. Some of the vehicles blew transmissions. Bottom line, we were told that all problems had been fixed and the vehicles were cleared to go into theater. The vehicles were 5-ton trucks and Humvees. The whole Army is using them; you would think that your maintenance facility would know how to fix them by now.”
“Bottom line,” one soldier noted in the AAR, “ your facility [CUBE] did next to nothing. I have no idea why this base was awarded the number one MOB site in the country. I could believe number one in bullshit, I will give you that.”
Fort Bliss spokesperson Ms. Jean Offut adamantly disagreed with F Company’s characterization of the quality care it received while at Fort Bliss, noting that F Company received hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment and maintenance while in southwest Texas. She said that the 91st Division and other reserve units training Iraq-bound soldiers have done an outstanding job preparing more than 50,000 soldiers training for deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan. She said civilian employees and military technicians and engineers spent $400,000 preparing Co. F’s equipment and weapons for deployment overseas.
“Ninety to 100 percent of their equipment was certified [for combat deployment],” Offut added.
Regardless of whether it was ready or not, F Company received its departure orders during the first week of February 2004 and prepared to leave. On Feb. 18, after receiving a hale and hearty farewell speech from a Fort Bliss-based general, F Company was deemed ready to depart and sent on its way.
“We were told the decision had been made to throw out our two-and-a-half months of wasted ‘training time’ at Ft Bliss. We would have additional training sessions in the country of Kuwait. We would also have access to firing ranges and ammo to fire our crew-served weapons, which up to that point we did not have a chance to fire,” one soldier reported. “Apparently the demand for our unit in theater was so great that we were flown directly into Balad, Iraq. We were forced to drive via convoy to our Forward Operation Base at Abu Ghraib prison. We drove in Iraq for the first month with no armored vehicles, some of which had no doors. Many of our crew-served weapons had not even been test fired as promised.”
A number of F Company soldiers signed a statement that was ultimately passed up the line to senior commanders in Iraq
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