FORT IRWIN, Calif. — An artillery shell falls from the sky and bursts on the ground, spreading its deadly gas.
The field headquarters of Fort Bliss’ 2nd Brigade Combat Team has been hit. Soldiers scurry for cover, while others quickly change into gas masks and chemical gear and hunt for the perpetrators.
The gas attack could have killed dozens of soldiers if it had been real.
Instead, it was just one scenario in an elaborate war game that the Strike Brigade faced during a training rotation this August at the National Training Center. NTC is considered one of the Army’s premier training facilities.
Capt. Jonathan Janiszewski, commander of 2nd Brigade’s Headquarters and Headquarters Company, said NTC can replicate threats “out here that we can’t simulate effectively at home station.”
Those threats can include mock chemical attacks, improvised explosive devices and insurgents and criminal gangs, played by role players, who are determined to undermine U.S. efforts, said Janiszewski, from Mount Lebanon, Pa.
About 3,400 soldiers from 2nd Brigade traveled nearly 1,000 miles to participate in one of the monthly rotations held at Fort Irwin, which is located in the Mojave Desert between Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
They were joined by 1,600 other soldiers from across the Army and from the United Kingdom with the Royal Queen’s Dragoon Guards.
That created a task force of about 5,000 soldiers that 2nd Brigade led during the rotation.
The additional soldiers included about 400 from Fort Bliss’ Combat Aviation Brigade — primarily the 2nd Battalion, 501st Aviation Regiment — which served as the aviation task force during the rotation.
In addition to having to respond to a wide range of scenarios, visiting units also are challenged by a world-class opposing force, the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, which is stationed at Fort Irwin and does 10 of these rotations a year.
Giving the training experience even more value, a staff of observer-coach-trainers run and manage the exercise and provide feedback to visiting units.
Getting that feedback from observers from outside the brigade is particularly important, Janiszewski said.
“We can’t see ourselves like an outside entity can,” Janiszewski said.
“The NTC vision is when you do something wrong or our unit does something wrong, makes a mistake or a misstep, instead of an OCT jumping down your throat, they talk us through what we could do better,” he said.
Col. Chuck Lombardo, 2nd Brigade’s commander from Park Hills, Mo., said having to respond to threats like a mock chemical attack “is the whole beauty” of doing an NTC rotation.
NTC’s opposing force and its staff of observer-coach-trainers also are dedicated to making visiting units better, Lombardo said.
“They have it down to a science; they pour their hearts into making us better every day,” Lombardo said.
Lombardo has done 17 training rotations at combat-training centers during his career and 45 overall. He served as an OCT at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Germany for 3½ years and did multiple rotations there in that role.
“I love coming to a CTC (a combat training center),” he said. “Every day, every minute, every hour, they really test a commander’s ability to think, transition, plan, execute and manage.”
For the past six years, 2nd Brigade served as the Army’s test unit in the modernization mission during about a dozen Network Integration Evaluation and Army Warfighting Assessment exercises at Fort Bliss.
That role ended last fall, and the brigade and its battalions have been transitioning to be fully deployable since then. The NTC rotation is serving as the culminating training event after more than six months of training at Fort Bliss.
“We will be a trained and ready armored brigade that is ready for the nation’s call,” Lombardo said.
Brigade Command Sgt. Maj. Kevin DaGraca said an NTC rotation is a way to stress, test and challenge soldiers and units in ways they can’t get at home station.
“My biggest thing is to get better every day,” said DaGraca, from San Bernardino, Calif. “We won’t ever be able to do everything perfect, but if we take those little things that the OCTs help us with and take those lessons and get better every day, I will definitely be proud of this brigade.”