Army Reserve Soldiers learn to save lives during Operation Cactus Gunnery

By Cheryl Phillips | 88th Readiness Division | Nov. 19, 2020

FORT McCOY, Wis. —

Nearly 30 Army Reserve gun crew members immersed themselves in two weeks of mounted gunnery training during Operation Cactus Gunnery here Nov. 4 to 18 hosted by the 103rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command, Des Moines, Iowa, to hone their convoy protection skills and ultimately to save lives.

The gunnery training progressed over three phases: live fire individual weapon proficiency on the M240B machine gun; live fire mounted crew gunnery with one vehicle qualifying at a time (also known as Gate 4); and live fire mounted section gunnery with two to five vehicles qualifying together (Gate 3). In the last stage the vehicles form a convoy, giving crews the ability to learn to work together as a team, explained Sgt. 1st Class Shane Hicks, non-commissioned officer in charge of the training. Each vehicle is comprised of a three-man crew.

The Soldiers endured “long days, long nights. They’ve done very well,” Hicks said. “They should be happy with what they’ve done.”

One of the Army Reserve Soldiers who served as a mounted gunner during the last stage was Spc. Desman Collins with the 540th Movement Control Team, Baton Rouge, La. He said growing up in a rural area, “I like shooting. Being a gunner is fun and invigorating.”

Collins explained that he enjoyed the training, engaging and attacking multiple targets. He learned that it’s necessary to “stay focused on the fundamentals because not everything will go as planned. It’s important to adapt, like when a weapon jams,” he said.

Operation Cactus Gunnery is one part of the 103rd’s mission to increase weapons proficiency among the NCO corps. “Potential future Army Reserve unit deployments to hostile operational environments require Soldiers to be proficient with their assigned and crew served weapons to survive on the battlefield,” Lt. Col. Craig Lanigan, officer in charge of Operation Cactus Gunnery.

Lanigan explained that Operation Cactus Gunnery is built on five columns. The first column supports the new Senior Gunner Course that was unveiled in 2019. It trains and certifies Senior Gunners for the Army Reserve through institutional, rigorous resident training. Senior Gunner graduates return to their units to help build mounted gunnery scenarios to execute Gates 4 and 3. They can also certify Vehicle Crew Evaluators, an essential component to qualifying Convoy Protection Platforms such as during Operation Cactus Gunnery.

The second column is the Small Arms Training Course which was held at Fort McCoy Oct. 16 to 29. The SAT-C helps NCOs improve their proficiency on six weapon systems. These trained NCOs then return to their units and build the weapon skills of their fellow Soldiers.
According to Lanigan, “Cactus Gunnery supports the Senior Gunner program by vetting candidates through the SAT-C. A trained weapons SME is the optimal candidate for Senior Gunner Course.”

The third column is the 103rd ESC Gunnery Team comprised of a cadre of NCOs who provide vigorous weapons training during SAT-C. This resulted in more than 60 weapons subject matter experts,

The fourth and fifth columns are crew and section gunnery respectively, where nine crews were trained or qualified on Gates 4 and 3 in November. Coupled with the July gunnery that launched Cactus Gunnery, the operation has trained or qualified 21 crews.

Ultimately, Army Reserve Soldiers who complete the SAT-C or mounted gunnery training walk away knowing they are better equipped to survive in a hostile environment and successfully complete a mission, such as convoy operations.