NEXT STOP: Afghanistan

Article excerpt

JRTC, FORT POLK, LA.-It was not yet 10 A.M. Another cold, damp January day, and we were on our way to the second of the day's missions. The small sign alongside the road in the thin pine forest pointed to "Gairo," and the nine up-armored Humvees of the platoon and its company command element turned off the asphalt onto the mud path leading to that tiny village soon visible in the clearing just ahead.

Platoon leader 1st Lt. Mike McBride wasn't overly concerned about this mission, which was a simple escort operation-bringing a district leader to a regional meeting and setting up a secure perimeter to search people as they arrived. It was the first operation earlier, at dawn, for which Lt. McBride had done his heaviest planning. That operation had required his platoon to enter the city of Ghazni to establish security for the World Health Organization's (WHO) scheduled medical civic action program (medcap) and then pick up the district leader for escort to Gairo.

The sky was still graying with dawn as Lt. McBride led a dismounted squad into the city while the remainder of the platoon pulled cordon security just outside in their Humvees. "I expected a major attack, from all the possible buildings around," Lt. McBride admitted later. "And maybe a suicide bomber." What he got was simply two snipers located on the second story of just one building; while he and his dismounts took cover, he brought in his Humvees for their firepower and then maneuvered foot elements to enter the building and kill the snipers. His platoon sustained no casualties; made a successful link up with the local Afghan National Police (ANP), securing the area for the medcap; and then brought in the WHO medical team. Mission complete, the platoon then headed for Gairo where, as soon as Lt. McBride brought his vehicles into the village, all hell broke loose.

Sitting ducks-within minutes of taking Dishka machinegun and RPG fire from a variety of positions in the wood line across the clearing-Lt. McBride's platoon quickly lost two vehicles and one-third of its men. The dim, whiny beeeeeeeeeep of multiple integrated laser engagement system (MILES) going off and calls of "Medic!" could be heard between the incoming and return fire, and Lt. McBride found himself with a rifle squad, on foot behind the cover of a functioning gun truck, heading for the wood line to assault the enemy. When the end of the exercise was called before noon, the major question raised by the Joint Readiness Training Center 0RTC) observer/controllers (O/Cs) wound up being: Should the platoon leader be running around with the radio?

Age and civilian work experience under his belt, a degree in history from Brown University (concurrently ROTC at nearby Providence College) and with four years Ready Reserve and four now on active duty, Lt. McBride already knew the answer. But having lost so many men, including squad leaders, he reasoned, "Someone's got to do the shooting," he told me later.

This is a lesson-lessons-learned under simulated battle situations, with blanks and MILES instead of real bullets and blood, coordinated and overseen by O/Cs. That's the purpose of JRTC-preparation for the real thing. Lt. McBride's platoon will deploy this spring to Afghanistan, part of the 101st Airborne Division's (Air Assault) 4th Brigade Combat Team, 506th Infantry Regiment, which takes over Regional Command East.

The brigade had participated in a full JRTC exercise just a few months earlier, and each battalion's return rotation in January was a shortened, intense four-day series of exercises-a refresher, a final honing. It was also an opportunity for the junior commanders and NCOs who had missed the fall training to catch up.

Because I expect to be embedded with the brigade during its Afghanistan deployment, I was given the privilege of joining 3rd Battalion for its JRTC week. The battalion is the 1st Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment (1-61 Cav), the RSTA (recon surveillance target acquisition), whose heritage is World War II's 601st Tank Destroyers and its most famous hero, Audie Murphy. …