Army Reserve Soldier graduates newly formed Senior Gunner Course with top honors

By Sgt. 1st Class Brent Powell | 76th Operational Response Command | Feb. 27, 2020

FORT HUNTER LIGGETT, Calif. —

After sitting through three-weeks of in-depth classroom instruction, spending long days at weapons ranges, and dedicating countless hours to late-night studying, one Soldier not only graduated the rigorous and mentally challenging Senior Gunner Course here, but he walked away with top honors.

That Soldier is Army Reserve Sgt. Robert Zalabak, a senior gunner and native of Chicago assigned to the 472nd Chemical Battalion, 209th Regional Support Group, 76th Operational Response Command. During a graduation ceremony here Feb. 23, he was recognized as the honor graduate for his class; a title that didn’t come without plenty of challenges along the way.

“This is an intense course,” said Zalabak, a former U.S. Marine machine-gunner, who graduated the course with an overall grade point average of 96 percent. “It’s probably the most challenging academic course I’ve ever taken, simply because there is so much information presented in such a condensed time frame, and because it’s all at the mastery level, you have to memorize everything.”

The Senior Gunner Course is a brand new multicomponent platform gunnery training course in the Army Reserve developed by master gunners who saw a need for trained platform gunnery experts at not only the division level, but the brigade and battalion levels as well.

“This course combines being a weapons expert with being a planning expert,” said Staff Sgt. Jason Obert, senior gunner, U.S. Army Reserve Command. “When students graduate, they are able to execute their units gunnery program to standard.”

The fast-paced 168-hour course presents students with a variety of information focused on crew-served platform gunnery.

The ability to learn quickly combined with the constant pressure of passing exams with a minimum of 90 percent, presented plenty of challenges to all the students, but Zalabak said the most challenging portion of the course was memorizing the “verbatims” for range safety. Verbatims are basically rules for establishing, setting up and running a safe firing range. “There are a ton of them that you have to memorize, and they have to be verbatim word for word,” he said. “Some of them are pretty long and they are not written like people normally speak. They are very challenging to memorize. I spent a lot of time just reciting them to myself, reciting them to other students, and writing them out. I probably wrote each one out 15 to 20 times so I could remember them.”

Zalabak said the key to being successful in the course was simple: studying. “I utilized flash cards to great effect,” he said. “I just drilled them over and over and over again. I don’t think I spent less than four hours a night studying during this whole course. In fact, one day we had six tests scheduled and I spent no less than eight hours ahead of time studying and preparing for those.”

In addition to numerous hours spent studying the classroom material, Zalabak said there was another tool that helped him be successful. That was a one-week Sabot Academy his division hosted a few months prior to the course that gave him an in-depth look at all things gunnery, while helping to build a knowledge foundation for the Senior Gunner Course. “It was a good preparatory course, and very useful,” he said. “I would definitely recommend Soldiers going through the Sabot Academy before coming here. I found it very beneficial.”

Zalabak’s hard work and dedication to learning senior gunner skills did not go unnoticed by his instructors. “He was very involved, and very motivated to learn throughout the course,” said Sgt. 1st Class Scott Magro, Senior Gunner Course manager, assigned to the 84th Training Command. “I was very impressed with his dedication. He really put forth maximum effort, and took time to help his fellow students as well.”

“The biggest key to success in this course that Sgt. Zalabak picked up on right away, was the fact that after seven or eight hours of classroom instruction you have to go back and spend three to six hours a night studying,” said Obert. “Sgt. Zalabak did that, and he successfully passed every test on the first try. He’s smart and takes his job seriously.”

With the course now behind him, Zalabak is already looking forward to putting his newly acquired skills to use at his unit. “First and foremost, I want to get our battalion through our upcoming gunnery event in April,” he said. “I want it to go a smoothly as possible. We are deep into the planning process of that right now, and the next part will fall on me to implement the range and ensure our training process is smooth and we can get everyone through. My goal is get 70-80 percent of our gunnery crews qualified on their first time firing on the range, and then get the remaining percent qualified on their second attempt.”

As he looks to the future of gunnery in the Army Reserve, Zalabak encourages anyone who can to attend the Senior Gunner Course.

“If you can come here and complete this course, you can probably write your own ticket to where you want to go and have a successful career,” said Zalabak. “Once you get this certification, you will be in high demand with any unit.”

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