Local unit is ‘the real McCoy’

Published 7:11 am Friday, July 1, 2011

Before training with live ammunition Monday, soldiers helped each other prepare. Here, two men help a gunman put on the harness that would keep the soldier in the humvee in case of a rollover. -- Kelli Lageson/Albert Lea Tribune

Soldiers receive high praise as they ready for deployment

FORT MCCOY, Wis. — Col. Eric Kerska said he had never seen perfect run-throughs at the practice ranges.

He has now.

Soldiers from the Albert Lea area unit — Delta Company, 2nd Battalion, 135th Infantry Regiment, within the 34th “Red Bull” Division — are displaying their skills and setting themselves apart from the more than 2,400 other Minnesota National Guard soldiers training at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin.

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Albert Lea’s unit has been training in advanced crew gunnery, and with perfect run-throughs, has impressed Kerska, who will lead the brigade on its deployment to Kuwait from mid-July until late spring in 2012.

“I’ve never seen a perfect run — and they’ve had three,” Kerska said. “That’s what (is) setting them apart.”

While each soldier has had some training in negotiating, how to be respectful of locals and some Arabic language lessons, not all soldiers have the same training. Right now, with just weeks left before they deploy, soldiers are doing training tailored to what they’ll be doing in Kuwait and Iraq.

“They practice as close as possible what they’ll be doing … overseas,” Kerska said.

The mission overseas

The soldiers are completing final preparations for their year-long deployment to one of the larger Army bases in Kuwait. Their mission, part of Operation New Dawn, is to safely escort troops and equipment out of Iraq. They will replace the 197th Fires Brigade, which is part of the New Hampshire National Guard.

Specialist Ben Weller, of Glenville, checks over his equipment before the soldiers went to a training Monday at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin.

“Anytime you take 2,500 people anywhere, it’s dangerous,” Kerska said. “I feel we’re very well prepared for what’s ahead of us.”

Some of the first training the soldiers did was about cultural awareness. They learned some Arabic phrases and words and how to greet and negotiate respectfully. Kerska said it’s important for soldiers to know cultural etiquette, show respect and avoid offending locals.

Kerska is the brigade commander and will lead nine battalions on the mission. Kerska said it’s unlikely the mission will be extended longer than the year allotted, but it is possible.

“The Army has worked very hard to avoid extensions,” Kerska said.

This is the second-largest deployment for the Red Bulls since World War II. Kerska said about 40 percent of the soldiers have deployed before.

Range training

The Delta Company’s specialized training includes gunnery and how to work together as a team. On Monday, soldiers used live ammunition while traveling Range 29 at Fort McCoy.

Soldiers from Delta Company put on their gear after platoon leaders checked over everyone's equipment Monday. The soldiers, many from the Albert Lea area, were heading out to a training at one of the ranges set up at Fort McCoy.

Range 29 consists of mostly gravel and some paved roads that wind through hills. Throughout the whole range there are small house-like structures, larger buildings and dummies dressed as civilians. Because the training needs to resemble what the soldiers may experience, there are dangers as well. One part of the soldiers’ training includes discerning between enemy and civilians, and determining when it’s safe to engage the enemy.

Occasionally, enemy dummies pop up and simulate shooting at the soldiers with puffs of smoke. The soldiers’ task is to shoot the enemy dummy down before it disappears. Some of the enemy dummies are able to move, which can make the task more difficult. Soldiers are taught to think about the ramifications of shooting, including whether there are civilians or other troops near by.

“They need to know what’s behind targets,” Capt. Steven Wayne said.

Soldiers went on dry runs and used blank rounds before advancing to live ammunition Monday. Soldiers are told to treat all weapons as if they are loaded, and being safe is always the biggest concern. The run-through on the range took less than 30 minutes.

“We’re getting very proficient,” said Francisco Lopez, of Albert Lea, after the practice run Monday.

Tim Mauntler, of Albert Lea, said he enjoys his job as gunman.

“Anytime I get into the turret, it’s a good time,” Mauntler said. “At night, it feels like a video game.”

Spc. Jordan Doyle, of Albert Lea, agreed that the platoon is improving as they’re practicing more.

“For the most part I feel prepared,” Doyle said.

After each run-through on the range, soldiers met for a debriefing. There they talked about what worked and didn’t work during the mission. It was a time to discuss what could have worked better and what they did well.

Soon these soldiers will start their Culminating Training Exercise, where they take everything they’ve learned and put it all together. For this, they’ll stay in one area of Fort McCoy instead of their barracks and traveling.

A day in the life

Though each day at Fort McCoy is different, soldiers have settled in to life in the barracks. For Spc. Kyle Davis, of Albert Lea, a normal day starts around 5:30 or 6 a.m. and ends around 10:30 or 11 p.m. This can all change with certain missions, like when his group did nighttime training, which kept them up until around 3 a.m.

In the off times, soldiers are able to work out or eat at the dining hall or one of the few restaurants on the fort. Soldiers also do their own laundry at laundromats throughout the fort, or they can visit the computer lab for Internet access.

For Davis, this is his longest stay at Fort McCoy, though he was there for a two-week summer stint. He’s a gunman, which he acknowledged is dangerous, but said it doesn’t bother him.

“We’ve got a lot of good guys,” Davis said. “I trust them with my life.”

Davis said he misses his girlfriend and family and that he’s looking forward to starting the mission and getting back home. This will be his first deployment.

Sgt. Dan Springborg, 45, of Albert Lea, is in his fifth year in the Army. This will be his second deployment; his first was to Kosovo. He said he has enjoyed getting used to working as a group. Springborg works at the Freeborn County jail and said he misses his family, including his wife, Gail, and daughters Brittany and Courtney. He said he’s already missing “doing the dad stuff,” including helping his daughter buy a car.

“I’ll definitely miss Jake’s Pizza — but I’ll miss my wife’s cooking more,” Springborg said.

Sgt. 1st Class Jeff Dahlen, 39, of Freeborn, is also leaving a wife, Jennifer, and two daughters, Sierra and Shelbie. This will be his fourth deployment, and he said it’s always difficult to leave family.

Spc. Ben Weller, of Glenville, is a gunman and explained the machine guns they were using during Monday’s training. The machine gun is a belt-fed .50-caliber model that feeds from both the left and right. Weller has received an Army Commendation Medal and a brigade trefoil pin for his shooting abilities.

“It’s mostly natural,” Weller said.

Support from home

Before the soldiers leave in mid-July, there will be a family picnic held from 2 to 7 p.m. on July 10. The civic organization, Serving Our Troops, will serve soldiers and family members a free steak dinner. Kerska said the organization has flown overseas before to provide free steak dinners to the Minnesota National Guard troops.

“It’s really neat to see the support from back home,” Kerska said.

He said all the food and beverages are donated for the event, and that it’s nice to see people supporting the soldiers.