Ault led his assault team through a stand of trees in deep snow, his ears catching the ragged breathing of his soldiers despite the deafening roar of 25mm cannons, TOW missiles, and heavy machine guns. Bradley Fighting Vehicles on a nearby ridge were keeping the enemy pinned down, while Ault's infantry platoon advanced unseen. Artillery shells whistled overhead and rent the air with a sharp crack on impact, the percussion close enough to rattle vital organs.
Except the trek through the forest was taking longer than anticipated, and Ault realized too late that he had left his map back in his Bradley. At the edge of the woods, Ault ordered a soldier to lay down cover fire with an automatic weapon while the rest of the platoon dashed across a clearing and into the town.
Two soldiers disappeared through a doorway. Immediately there was the crack of automatic weapons fire. Plunging into the dark room after them, shouting "Friendly, coming in!" Ault was momentarily disoriented by the effects of a smoke grenade. A mannequin in Arab dress lay slumped in the corner, illuminated by shafts of sunlight streaming through shell holes in the wall.
Just then a radio crackled with the voice of a scout telling Ault that bad guys were pouring out of the back of the building. As the "whoosh" of a rocket-propelled grenade sounded outside the window, reports came in of enemy fire originating from the town's mosque. Ault had a quick decision to make: Storm the mosque and inflame the town's Muslims, or allow the gunfire to continue unchecked and further risk the lives of his men.
Make up your mind! "Bam!" "Bam!" "Bam!" First one soldier, then another, then a third was "hit" by sniper fire; other soldiers quickly dragged them into the building by the collar of their armored vests. But the platoon's medic was nowhere to be found and wasn't responding to radio calls for help. "Where the hell is the damn medic!?"
After the mock battle, Capt. Jeremiah Pray conducted a review while Ault and the other soldiers of 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment took a knee to catch their collective breath. "So things got pretty chaotic there?" Pray asked. "Well, this place is designed to create chaos."
The brutally honest and sometimes humiliating after-action review is a mainstay of the modern Army and is central to its ethos as a learning organization that long ago adopted a motto from the mighty Roman legions: Train so that your drills are bloodless battles, and your battles bloody drills.
In the bloodless battle just ended, Pray pointed out, Ault's platoon had made numerous, potentially fatal errors. A more than 20-minute lag between the time that supporting units began laying down fire and the platoon reached town meant that the "high-value target" -- whom one officer called that "freaking Abu whatever-his-name-is Zarqawi!" -- had likely escaped.
Instead of approaching the town in a methodical "advance-and-cover" tactical formation, the soldiers had sprinted across the final clearing to arrive winded and disorganized. Because the gunner providing cover fire had forgotten the tripod for his high-caliber automatic weapon, he was wildly inaccurate and thus ineffective. The smoke grenade had proved more of a hindrance than a help in clearing the building; wounded soldiers had failed to use available cover; and casualty evacuation had been haphazard.
In normal times, the 1st Battalion, part of the 1st Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team -- the "Dagger Brigade" -- would have the luxury of time to correct the myriad mistakes and address the shortcomings identified at JMTC, as the Joint Multinational Training Center is known. These are anything but normal times, however, for the Army. The attempt to "transform" and fundamentally reorganize itself, while mounting a global war on terrorism that includes combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, has greatly compressed training cycles and created serious stress and personnel turmoil.
Dagger Brigade is short of its normal allotment of midcareer sergeants, and recruits only months out of basic training make up as much as 25 percent of some of its battalions. Meanwhile, after serving a 12-month tour in Iraq that ended last February, the brigade is scheduled to return this summer.
This fast turnaround gives its leaders barely more than a year to reconstitute equipment, retrain units that have experienced more than 60 percent turnover in personnel in some instances, and prepare to redeploy. At the same time, the rest of 1st Infantry Division is moving from its venerable home in Schweinfurt, Germany, to the United States as part of the Pentagon's global realignment of the military, another pillar of the transformation campaign.
The stresses imposed by war and change, along with the compressed training cycles dictated by repeated combat deployments with minimal downtime, have fundamentally altered Army training doctrine. The Army's training grounds have steadily injected greater realism and risk into their regimen, the better to prepare commanders and soldiers for the battles that await them in Iraq and possibly elsewhere.
Indeed, the Army's premier combat training facilities, such as JMTC, the National Training Center in California, and the Joint Readiness Training Center in Louisiana, are now last stops for units returning to Iraq or Afghanistan. At the centers, soldiers take a sort of final exam to fine-tune them for the complex and dangerous missions they will confront in those two countries.
In the case of Dagger Brigade's rotation through JMTC, even the officers assigned to the detachment responsible for the care of soldiers' families back in Schweinfurt held casualty-notification drills at night to prepare for the worst. Chaplains with combat units in the field at JMTC performed mock memorial services for soldiers "killed in action." The net effect is less a traditional training period than a dress rehearsal for war.
At the after-action review for Lt. Ault and his men, Lt. Col. George Glaze, the commanding officer of their battalion, took one more opportunity to drive that point home. "This may be the last time that you go through the town of Rufa before we actually go through the town of Rufa! Do you get my meaning?" asked Glaze, who, like most of the brigade's leadership, has already done a tour in Iraq. "And let me tell you, the bad guys have had the last six months to work on their techniques and procedures, too. So you had better be ready to bring your 'A' game. Because I can assure you, the enemy is going to bring theirs."
When Col. J.B. Burton, the Dagger Brigade commander, and his senior staff sat down last summer to plot a course for the coming year, they immediately confronted two hard realities. With 12 of the Army's 33 active-duty brigades committed to wars and anti-terrorism operations, virtually every brigade in the service was preparing for, in the middle of, or coming home from a wartime or "hardship" deployment. Even without formal notice from higher command, Burton and his staff knew that Dagger Brigade would have to deploy again sometime in the spring or early summer of 2006.
Given that relatively small window for preparing a 4,200-troop brigade for war, the second reality was that Dagger Brigade did not have time for the Army's traditional, sequential syllabus for conducting unit training -- beginning with individual soldiers and methodically working up through training events designed to prepare squads, platoons, companies, and finally battalion and brigade-level staffs.
Like many members of his senior staff, Burton had already spent a year in Iraq. He experienced firsthand the disconnect between an overly formalized training regime designed for a peacetime Army and the demands of war. So Burton viewed the time constraints as an opportunity to put into practice some ideas that had been kicking around inside his head since his year in Tikrit with the 4th Infantry Division in 2003-2004.
Many of the same ideas have been percolating throughout the Army's senior officer and noncommissioned officer corps, both of which are overwhelmingly composed of recent combat veterans. Like the Vietnam generation of officers before them -- who had created the combat training centers based on their experiences in war -- they were determined to make Army training more closely reflect what they had learned in combat.
"If I didn't use what I learned in Iraq to inform my training strategy, then I probably wouldn't be preparing my soldiers adequately for combat," said Burton. "When I sat down with my staff to design a training and exercise plan, we established an overarching imperative that everything the brigade did would be consistent with the challenges we will face on a deployment to Iraq. In terms of training, that meant continually reinforcing the fact that this is a rehearsal for war."
The Dagger Brigade staff thus largely jettisoned the Army's traditional calculus of readiness as the sum total of scores on countless separate training actions, from qualifying with an M-16 on a rifle range, to securing a site with controlled entry points, to rehearsing the transfer of ammunition in a truck convoy.
Instead, it designed "tactical combat scenarios" that exercised all of those individual skills in combination. These changes compressed training cycles and put stress on a battalion's entire command echelon in the process. The result was to turn even the lowly rifle range into a mock war zone.
On a traditional rifle range where basic M-16 skills are taught, a range officer with a bullhorn sits in a tower and carefully orchestrates target practice to ensure order and maximum safety. Live ammunition is issued only from a central collection point on the range, soldiers are instructed when to fire and when to cease, and range-safety sergeants stand by with cleaning rods to physically ensure that each soldier's rifle is clear before he exits the range.
"That makes me want to vomit! Really, it makes me sick!" said Burton, displaying the impatience with peacetime protocol that is becoming a hallmark of a wartime Army led by recent combat veterans. In a real combat zone, Burton said, soldiers would get their ammo from a squad leader who draws it from a platoon assembly area established by a supply unit commander.
Sergeants would instruct their troops to fire at any target in their sector and to report on the results; they would not shout at them through a bullhorn. Other armed soldiers would watch their backs, establishing perimeter checkpoints if necessary. When the fighting stopped, sergeants would shout a simple "green and clear!" and trust that soldiers had enough sense to clear their weapons.
"So why not do that in training?" Burton said. "That scenario involves not just the private on the rifle range, but you're also training junior officers in small-unit leadership skills, as well as the entire chain of command from the battalion down. The whole idea," he continued, "is to create 'muscle memory' for everyone so it all becomes second nature before you do it for real, because you shouldn't do anything hard for the first time in combat."
As the culmination of that new training philosophy, Burton was determined that Dagger Brigade's final dress rehearsal at the Joint Multinational Training Center would present challenges, and create stresses, similar to what his troops would soon face in Iraq. He wanted live-fire exercises that made range boundaries virtually invisible to the troops, giving his young soldiers a feel for the close-in and frightening sights and sounds of the battlefield.
His officers oversaw the construction of Arab "towns" on the live-fire range, complete with the sound of Islamic prayers blasting from the "mosque's" loudspeakers and the smell of animal guts burning in oil drums to replicate the smell of a Baghdad slum. Burton requested that the "Opposing Force" at the center -- units trained to act like a calculating, adaptive enemy -- mirror the tactics and doctrine of the Iraqi insurgents in every detail.
"Essentially, I asked for an operational environment at JMTC that reflects Iraq in every aspect except for live bullets being fired at us. I want them to force us to be on our game, all the time," Burton said. "Because this is a tough business we're in. It will require us to use violence and extreme ferocity against those who would do us harm. And sometime soon these young soldiers are going to be going through a door in the middle of the night for real, and they won't have me or anyone else looking over their shoulders telling them what to do. So we have to be tough on them."
There was another reason why Dagger Brigade's staff was counting on a hyper-realistic training environment: For many of the green soldiers, fresh out of basic training, their experiences in Germany would be the only opportunity to bond with one another in a field environment and with the sergeants and junior officers who will lead them into battle in a few months.
Because of a shortage of midcareer sergeants, some of those young noncoms will be performing duties and shouldering responsibilities above their normal pay grade. It's one more hidden cost of a service strained by the demands of war and massive change -- the Dagger Brigade that deploys to Iraq in 2006 will have an average age that is younger even than that of the brigade that fought in Iraq little more than a year earlier.
In December, a month before Dagger Brigade moved to the training center in Germany, its engineer battalion received 91 freshly minted privates right out of basic training and the Army's next level, advanced individual training.
"My joke in talking to my commanders was, 'Hey, don't worry -- how much trouble can 91 privates get into?' " said Lt. Col. Glen Masset, commanding officer of the 9th Engineer Battalion. "But these young kids now make up about one-fourth of my battalion. Because we're short midcareer sergeants, my younger sergeants have also had to stand up and meet the challenge, so I won't deny there's a lot of stress on these young troops," Masset continued. "We're actually over our authorized strength now, but a lot of my soldiers are very young."
The huge influx of new soldiers into Dagger Brigade so soon before a combat deployment is the direct result of the strains the Army is undergoing in trying to both sustain combat operations and transform itself by wringing nine more combat brigades (going from 33 to 42) out of a total active-duty force that has not grown.
To keep units intact, for instance, the Army is using its "stop-loss" authority, which bars soldiers from leaving the service anytime within 90 days of their unit's scheduled departure for Iraq or Afghanistan. So even if a soldier's formal commitment to the service is completed before the unit departs for a deployment, it could be up to 15 months later before he or she can actually leave the service.
So, when those brigades finally come home from Iraq or Afghanistan, they "just explode," as one officer put it. Many soldiers who couldn't leave before the tour of duty exit the service quickly, and those who stay often move on to different units and schools. For Dagger Brigade, that meant a personnel turnover of 60 percent in some of its battalions after it returned from Iraq last year. With only about a year and a half to get back to full strength, many of the brigade's units didn't achieve that goal until December, when the new privates arrived.
Dagger Brigade's 299 Forward Support Battalion, for instance, was at just 52 percent of its authorized strength before December. Only nine of a required 42 soldiers were on duty routing needed materiel to the rest of the brigade. The shortage resulted in a 75-day backlog for spare parts. Now fully manned, the battalion is working overtime to prepare the brigade's new troops for Iraq, where there are no secure rear areas and the supply convoys will likely be a prime target for insurgents.
"In the supply business, everyone brags about Wal-Mart because their inventory systems are real good. But I can guarantee you that Wal-Mart doesn't routinely pick up their stores and move them halfway around the world," said Lt. Col. Keith Sledd, the battalion's commanding officer. "And oh, by the way, Sears and Target don't routinely ambush their supply trucks, either. So, yeah, my new guys are nervous, and they should be. That's why our rotation through JMTC is so important -- it's a great team-building exercise. Everyone is working long hours together under a lot of pressure."
The Army is coming off one of its worst recruiting years in recent times, but it has boasted that its retention rate -- getting the soldiers already in uniform to re-enlist -- remains high. Dagger Brigade's shortage of midcareer sergeants suggests that the service's practice of combining retention rates into a single figure has masked shortfalls at some critical points in the ranks.
Midcareer sergeants are those still short of the 10-year mark, beyond which most soldiers make the military a 20-year-plus career, yet they are essential mentors and trainers of green recruits. A shortage of them puts more strain on the entire chain of command.
"The Army is going through a paradigm shift right now -- what we're doing today is not what a lot of [midcareer] sergeants who joined the Army before 9/11 signed up to do," said Maj. David Ray, an operations officer in Dagger Brigade's 9th Engineer Battalion. "So we've lost a lot of those guys, and without their experience, we're facing a steeper training and learning curve with a young force."
Maj. Gen. Ken Hunzeker, commanding officer of the 1st Infantry Division, which includes the Dagger Brigade, said that the Army's transformation has likely spawned some shortages at specific ranks.
"Quite candidly, as we grow from 33 brigades to 42 brigades, we've had to recolor and reassign roughly 100,000 positions, and on top of wartime deployments, that causes some disruptions," he said. "For instance, it takes years to grow staff sergeants at the E-5 level, and over half of today's Army has joined the service just since 2001. That means we have to ask younger kids today to do the jobs that we asked sergeants to do in the past. The good news is that these new recruits who've joined after 9/11 just have unbounded energy and motivation. I call them the 'new Greatest Generation.' "
In preparing that new generation for its final dress rehearsal before war, some Dagger Brigade commanders feared that senior Army leaders and trainers at JMTC would stick with tradition and resist the new emphasis on hyper-realism. They needn't have worried. After more than three years in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army has undergone something akin to a collective after-action review, with nearly its entire command chain having had a chance to compare Army training with actual wartime experiences. There are few places better than the Joint Multinational Training Center to gauge the results of the Army's internal soul-searching.
In the spring of 2003, then-Col. David Perkins was the de facto mayor of a still smoldering slice of Baghdad. As commander of the 3rd Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade, Perkins was instrumental in developing the "Thunder Run" tactic of sending armored juggernauts into the heart of the contested capital to break the resistance, an approach that went against Army doctrine at the time.
In the first Thunder Run, on April 5, 2003, 2nd Brigade fought through numerous roadblocks and killed an estimated 2,000 Iraqi Special Republican Guards and paramilitary fighters. On the second Thunder Run two days later, Perkins and 2nd Brigade fought their way to the center of the capital and then held their ground through all-night counterattacks. With the brigade still occupying Saddam Hussein's palace complexes the next morning, the high-intensity phase of the Iraq invasion was essentially over.
A few weeks later, Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, then commander of land forces for the Iraqi Freedom campaign, visited Perkins in Baghdad. "One of the first things General McKiernan asked me was what adjustments to our training I recommended, given my experiences," Perkins said. "And I told him that we needed to add about a thousand enemy fighters to our tank gunnery drills, because I had never seen anything like that in training. My larger point was that we really needed to ratchet up the realism of our training."
Today, McKiernan is the four-star general in charge of U.S. Army Europe, and he has ordered Perkins, now a brigadier general, to develop greater training realism as the commander of JMTC.
Even before arriving at the center, units receive a one-week crash course in Islamic culture, the better to understand the nuances of Muslim societies. Once at JMTC, young officers conduct negotiations with "sheiks" and "imams" through embedded interpreters to gather intelligence and gauge the threat in their area of operations. Their ability to put that knowledge into practice -- to understand, for instance, the different agendas of Sunnis and Shiites, or the operational signatures of foreign terrorists as opposed to former regime elements -- will largely dictate their success.
"In the old days at JMTC, units would receive a lot of static orders," said Perkins. "If we were told to conduct a deliberate attack, for instance, we would line up our tanks against the Opposing Force, and then drop a flag like at a NASCAR race and go at it. Now we put a lot of bread crumbs out there in terms of intelligence, and how units and their staff pick up on that intelligence, analyze it, and adjust their plans accordingly shapes the scenario and affects their success," he continued. "That kind of intelligence-driven operation is much more nuanced and sophisticated than in the past, and it exercises a far wider set of soldier skills."
Perhaps nowhere is the Army's new philosophy and emphasis on realism more evident, however, than in the approach to live-fire training. Virtually every soldier at JMTC carries a weapon and live ammunition, just as he or she will in a war zone. Mock small towns on the range where units used to practice urban operations by shooting harmless lasers now echo with the sound of live tank and cannon fire, and the shudder of demolition charges blowing down doors. Units routinely practice tactical maneuvers on ranges in proximity to actual artillery, mortar, rocket, and heavy machine-gun fire.
"In the old days, our training focus was on safety, and I will tell you from my personal experiences that it was too sterile and unrealistic," said Perkins, who now measures safety from the moment a soldier enters JMTC to the day he or she returns from Iraq.
"As a result, we've raised the level of risk in training so as to lower the risk that soldier will face in combat," he said. "Because if we're going to ask these kids to bring their tanks and Bradleys into downtown Falluja, I want them to have already done that in training with live ammunition. Otherwise, the level of risk and danger they confront in Iraq will be off the charts. So now we conduct high-risk training for soldiers going into high-risk operations. I think that's better overall risk management."
At the end of one such training exercise on a live-fire range at JMTC, Col. Burton, the Dagger Brigade commander, sensed that his young soldiers were somewhat in awe of the surroundings, and he used that opportunity to drive home the message that this was only a dress rehearsal for the real thing. Burton knew that in the 1st Infantry Division's last deployment to Iraq, 117 of its soldiers had been killed in action. He was determined that none of his young charges would ever feel that the Army had failed to prepare them, no matter what the circumstances.
"On this Fourth of July, you will see fireworks that have nothing to do with celebrating the birth of our nation," Burton told the troops, his words registering on their features like a slap in the face. "You will likely be on patrol in some shit-hole town in Iraq, and your decisions will be written in blood. So I want you sergeants to help out your young lieutenant there. He can't carry this platoon all by himself, but he damn sure will have to write those letters home to loved ones and families all by himself. Fix your issues here, soldiers. That way when it counts in Iraq, you'll be some lethal sons of bitches."