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First-ever Operation Cold Steel heats up Army Reserve readiness

By Master Sgt. Anthony L Taylor | First Army | March 29, 2017

Tuesday, March 29, 2017 — FORT McCOY, Wis. — Deep in the late-winter woods, metallic clacking and repetitive booms rolled like thunder – first far, then near – in the cool, crisp air.

It was week three of Operation Cold Steel, the U.S. Army Reserve’s first large-scale live-fire training and crew-served weapons qualification and validation exercise, taking place March 9 through April 25, 2017. The gunnery exercise is critical in ensuring that America’s Army Reserve units and Soldiers are trained and ready to deploy on short notice and bring combat-ready and lethal firepower in support of the Total Army Force and Joint Force partners around the world.

Eighteen master gunners from First Army provided expertise in crew-level gunnery qualifications and Vehicle Crew Evaluator training, which trains Soldiers to conduct crew-served weapons training and vehicle crew gunnery at the unit level.

The Army Reserve comprises approximately two-thirds Combat Service Support with a focus on units such as transportation, quartermaster, ordnance and logistics, so gunnery skills are new for many of the Soldiers participating in Cold Steel.

“In years past, if you said the word ‘gunnery’ you would think of armor, tankers, or (mechanized) infantry,” said Brig. Gen. Fletcher Washington, 80th Training Command deputy commanding general for operations and one of four general officers providing senior-level oversight at Cold Steel. “But now, under the new construct that we operate in this asymmetric battlefield, as soon as you step outside the gate, you are in enemy lines. There are no longer good guys on one side and bad guys on the other.”

The Soldiers training at Cold Steel are part of the Army’s Ready Force that can deploy quickly with the active-component units they support.

“The Active Component cannot deploy without the reserve,” said Sgt. 1st Class Jaime Herrera, assigned to First Army’s 181st Multifunctional Training Brigade and serving as one of two lead master gunners in support of Cold Steel. “The (Army Reserve) houses approximately 90 percent of all our sustainment units … if rapid-deployment active-duty units have to deploy, (Reserve units) have to go with them.”

The priorities at Cold Steel are to qualify vehicle gun crews, create VCEs to train Reserve units, and to qualify individual ground crews.

Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Mah, a member of the 348th Transportation Battalion from Houston, Texas, is one of a handful of Army Reserve master gunners participating at Cold Steel. He is working with the First Army master gunners to begin taking the reins from his active-component counterparts and help build the bench for the Army Reserve.

“I’m assisting the 181st (MFTB) in conducting master gunner briefs, running the (training) lanes and also as a (vehicle) crew evaluator,” Mah said. “Master gunner is the (subject matter expert) of all things crew gunnery-related. The VCEs have an understanding of what gunnery is, and they’re able to give good (after action reviews) to the crews to give them pointers on how to increase their scores and how to shoot gunnery and identify targets better.”

The units moving through Cold Steel are showing a lot of promise, according to Herrera.

“The first chalk was a little rough, and we knew it would be. They were our ‘guinea pig’ chalk where we learned a lot of our lessons and made adjustments, but they still came out all right,” Herrera said. “Chalk two was a little smoother.”

Many Soldiers coming through the Cold Steel training lanes had never seen some of the crew-served weapon systems, Herrera added, but were walking away from the exercise with top rating marks.

“We have crews that are two specialists and a private first class, and they’re shooting distinguished rating (top gunnery rating requiring 900 of 1000 points),” Herrera said. “To go from zero experience to shooting top tier is a big deal.”

Soldiers training at Cold Steel’s night live-fire range, illuminated only by red and green glow sticks in their vehicles and a few overhead range lights, backed up Herrera’s assessment.

“I scored four out of five with a total score of only missing one target,” said Spc. Colton McKay, a petroleum supply specialist assigned to the 786th Quartermaster Company from Provo, Utah. “This is my first time doing anything gunnery.”

“I’ve (trained) with the (M240 machine gun) before, but that was when I was prior service in the Marines," said Spc. Zachary McFarland, a motor transport operator assigned to the 182nd Transportation Company from Bay City, Michigan. “We’ve been doing really good; we are one of the top teams currently in our chalk. I think the overall training has been really good.”

Lt. Col. Byron Perkins, Operation Cold Steel Task Force Commander, said that potential future Cold Steel exercises could have the Ready Force Soldiers that are training at this exercise lead future ones. But the Army Reserve needs to eventually run gunnery training on its own, he added.

“We need to create the culture where that’s part of the yearly training brief and yearly training calendar for units to run through gunnery,” Perkins said. “Because this is new, we don’t have the culture or the personnel right now.”

Lt. Gen. Charles Luckey, commanding general of the U.S. Army Reserve, visited several of the Cold Steel ranges and training sites.

“We’re making history. This is a big deal,” Luckey said to Soldiers in one of the first chalks to qualify. “Where we’re going isn’t where we’ve been. This is a different Army Reserve we’re building. So I want every Soldier in America’s Army Reserve back in the field.”