Fort Jackson, S.C.–Its engine gunning to life, the big five-ton truck jerks into gear then begins rolling down an isolated stretch of sandy dirt highway. Seated in the truck-bed on a centerline bench are 16 young American soldiers. All are armed with M16A2 rifles, and all are dripping sweat in the near-100-degree heat and unimaginable humidity beneath combat uniforms, Kevlar helmets, and bulletproof vests. Eight of the soldiers are facing portside (left). Their backs are to the other eight soldiers who are facing starboard (right). All weapons are locked-and-loaded, aiming out at the countryside from both sides of the truck.
Two sergeants are standing between the two groups of soldiers.
As the truck rounds a corner near several wrecked, burned, and bullet-riddled vehicles, a soaking rain begins, turning the soldiers’ uniforms and helmet covers from a woodland camouflage to a dark green.
No one is talking. The only sound is the rain, the squeaking of the truck’s undercarriage, the engine, and the occasional soldier tapping on the bottom of his gray, metal magazine to make sure it is properly locked into the magazine-well of his rifle.
“BOOM!” The earth-jarring sound of an IED (improvised explosive device) detonating a few feet from the truck momentarily stuns everyone except Staff Sergeant Osvaldo Rodriguez.
“Fire! Open fire!” he shouts at the portside group.
The truck slows, lurches once, then halts. Short bursts of fire crackle from the muzzles of the M16s.
The rain is now falling in sheets.
“Dismount! Dismount! Get out of the truck! Move!” Rodriguez shouts at the soldiers on starboard.
The portside group remains in the truck and continues pouring a murderous fire into an enemy ambush position. Despite being encumbered with personal gear and weapons, the starboard side soldiers leap with an almost athletic grace from the rear of the truck and sprint to positions between the vehicle and the enemy. Dropping to prone positions in the mud, they thumb-off their rifle safeties, and begin blasting away at the enemy. As they do so, the soldiers who first began firing switch on safeties and begin leaping from the truck as quickly and as much like clockwork as the others.
These soldiers have been in the Army for only seven weeks. They are not yet in Iraq or Afghanistan. In fact, they have another two weeks of basic training ahead of them before graduation, then on to a few weeks of advanced individual training (AIT).
But even at this stage, their performance is impressive. They all move in-sync with one another, reacting to commands as if this response to a vehicle-disabling IED blast followed by an immediate enemy ambush is second nature.
With the smoke from the exploded IED now dissipating in the rain, the soldiers continue firing at a variety of man-sized pop-up targets at varying distances.
In a real fight, the targets would be shooting back, and the badly wounded on both sides would be screaming. But this live-fire convoy exercise in the sandhills and piney woods of Fort Jackson, S.C. is as realistic as can be allowed in a training environment. It has to be. According to the Army, many–if not most–of these young recruits will soon be in harm’s way. The biggest threat to their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan will be roadside bombs, highway ambushes, and suicide bombers. And not being assigned to a combat occupational specialty is no guarantee that these soldiers won’t find themselves in the middle of a full-blown firefight.
“Most of the soldiers who graduate from basic combat training, can expect to be deployed into an AOR [area of responsibility] which will require them to travel in convoys,” according to a U.S. Army document, Convoy Live Fire for Basic Combat Training, used by instructors at Fort Jackson. Additionally, “100 percent of the soldiers who graduate from BCT will travel and operate in their AOR via convoy operations in soft-skinned vehicles. The threat’s main TTP [tactics, techniques, and procedures] for attacking U.S. forces in theater is to avoid our strength and seek weakness in soft-skinned vehicles.”
Soft vehicles aren’t the enemy’s only consideration. Another concern is the combat capability of the chosen target. If a unit is less capable than others of launching an effective counter-attack, the more likely it is to be targeted for ambush.
“The enemy chooses when, where, and how he will strike, and he usually tries to choose softer targets,” Brigadier General Abraham Turner, commanding general of Fort Jackson, tells NRO. “You see, an infantry platoon is a hard target. If the bad guys go after an infantry platoon, they know that platoon may take them out before they’ve accomplished their mission. Infantrymen are trained to fight off attackers and defeat them. The bad guys know this.”
Indeed. Last week, a U.S. Marine convoy–primarily manned by support (non-combat) Marines, most of whom were female–was targeted by an al Qaeda suicide bomber. Five Marines (two of them female) and one female sailor were killed in the attack.
Because they cannot stand toe-to-toe with U.S. and allied ground combat forces in a pitched battle, ambushes and IED detonations on passing vehicles and foot patrols are Al Qaeda’s tactics of choice.
How to respond to those tactics is the responsibility of combat commanders who’ve been there and experienced the reality on the ground. They bring that experience home to share with American recruits who must develop the instincts to survive once they deploy.
“If I was a general for a day, I’d have them [the recruits] do this convoy training 50 times over,” says Captain Jeremy Smith, a recruit company commander who, while serving with 101st Airborne Division in Iraq, experienced and survived an IED attack. “It’s great training in terms of teaching the soldier how to handle the weapon in this environment and being confident that he can survive it. Also, these soldiers here are going to get more training on this when they graduate and get to their unit before they go to Iraq.”
How long might it be before some of these soldiers find themselves in Iraq?
“They’ve got to have 30 days of training [post BCT] before being deployed,” says Smith. “But it’s fast. We had a soldier just out of basic training, did his additional 30 days, two weeks later, he was killed in Iraq.”
Aside from responding to an IED blast, firing, dismounting the truck, and repositioning on the ground; recruits are taught to identify and engage targets from moving, bouncing vehicles that are traveling at different speeds.
They come to the week-seven convoy exercise fully prepared. They’ve already qualified on the range, firing the rifle at stationary and pop-up targets, and they’ve developed reflexive firing skills. Reflexive firing is a quick-fire method wherein soldiers are trained to instantly bring the rifle up to the ready position and fire into a target without aiming the weapon from the shoulder. Though reflexive firing is not employed from the back of a five-ton, it is useful in all live-fire exercises because through-it recruits develop a confidence in their ability to handle the rifle in rapidly changing gunfights, and convoy ambushes are always rapidly changing.
From a tower overlooking the “Old Anzio” range where the convoy exercise is taking place, Lt. Col. Fred Johnson, a battalion commander at Fort Jackson, adds, “These soldiers today are joining the Army knowing they are going to war. It’s up to us to make sure they are ready for battle.”
–A former U.S. Marine infantry leader and paratrooper, W. Thomas Smith Jr. is a freelance journalist and the author of four books, including the Alpha Bravo Delta Guide to American Airborne Forces.