FORT MCCOY, Wis. –
While operations for the Army Reserve and the 86th Training Division (TD) did not come to a complete halt during the COVID-19 pandemic, operations were limited.
The 2021 Army Reserve training exercise season has transitioned to full-spectrum operations.
“When we were doing the planning for this summer for the exercises that the 86th would be conducting, the feedback from the units was that they wanted something somewhat challenging, but a little more basic that would get after some of the Soldier skills,” said Brig. Gen. Stacy M. Babcock, commanding general, 86th Training Division and exercise director for Warrior Exercise 86-21-02.
Due to this feedback, the 86th TD decided to scale back training and conduct a WAREX.
“The advantage that a WAREX provides is that its compartmentalized training,” said Maj. Jacob Spriggs, deputy exercise control director, 1st Operations Brigade, 86th TD.
This means if one unit makes a mistake, it doesn’t trickle down to other units. In a Combat Support Training Exercise, the units are integrated so a mistake by one unit effects other units in the exercise.
“It’s a nonimpact, so it allows a much more permissive environment for young leaders and inexperienced Soldiers to make those mistakes and learn from them,” Spriggs added.
Leaders believed that environment was necessary and allowed units and Soldiers to grow in warrior tasks and skills.
“Basically the goal of the WAREX is to get them to kind of a practice level, kind of a walk phase as opposed to being at a full-trained level,” said Babcock. “So, it’s an acknowledgement that we’re not quite there … and providing them enough repetitions, reps and sets, of certain skill sets to get after improving making those battle skills something that are more muscle memory and you just do it as opposed to having to figure it out when it’s too late.”
Command Sgt. Maj. Douglas Dieckman, senior enlisted advisor, 86th TD, echoed that sentiment and expanded on what that meant for units.
“That’s one of the big takeaways from it, because that includes a lot of things from having the right gear, to knowing how to fire your individual weapon and how to take care of your weapon, how to take care of your gear, how to do patrols, how to react to contact, all kinds of things,” he added. “Those are all things that we can’t necessarily replicate other than when we get to these exercises because they’re hard to replicate on our own.”
Training in this way is essential due to the recent pandemic.
“After 18 months of COVID-19 and the isolation that it’s brought, it’s really caused a big impact on our military,” said Spriggs. “This WAREX especially has allowed units to get back to the basics, to practice a lot of their leader-level and Soldier-level tasks in an environment where they can make mistakes and can learn from those mistakes and it’s not going to affect other units training around them. It’s going to give them an opportunity to learn and grow and gain that battlefield experience.”
Lessons were also taken from last year’s Operation Ready Warrior, a proof-of-principle exercise for conducting operations in a pandemic, while preventing the spread.
“We took some lessons learned from last year on bringing 1,000s of people together and trying not to get a whole bunch of them sick, because it would spread very fast,” said Babcock.
Preventative measures for this exercise included masks for those not vaccinated, BinaxNOW testing upon arrival, contact tracing and identifying positive cases in the very beginning of the exercise.
“This year we really did, I think, an awesome job with mitigating the potential impacts of COVID,” said Babcock.
Although preventative measures were in place, there was also an understanding that there would still be risk.
“What we learned last year was you can’t implement too many mitigation measures because Soldiers are not going to follow all of them, all the time. For some reason or another, it’s just not going to happen,” said Babcock. “I’m not trying to say mean things about Soldiers, it’s just things happen: they’re eating, they’re brushing their teeth, they’re shaving, showering, sleeping, so they’re really not going to be wearing a mask all the time.”
While the COVID pandemic itself has created an obstacle to overcome, the transition from virtual training to in-person has also been a task.
“I think working virtually, then transitioning to in-person, especially for the planning conferences, presented some challenges. We’ve had to really redefine how we work together,” said Spriggs. “I think everyone in the country has been kind of struggling with that. I think we’ve worked through it really well. I think at the beginning no one would have expected this to run as smoothly as it has, but it is due in large part to everyone caring so much and wanting it to go well. It has gone tremendously well.”
Leadership also saw the desire in Soldiers to interact with each other and the joy it brought them.
“Watching (the Soldiers) put up tents and do all this hard work, just smiling and joking around with each other. They just look very happy to be around each other, even though they’re out there in 90-plus-degree weather with all that gear on,” said Babcock. “They just looked very happy to be around each other, they looked very proud of what they did and that wouldn’t happen in a virtual environment. It can’t happen in a virtual environment.”
“Soldier morale, I would say, is high and I think that alludes to being without training for over a year … They’re excited for some opportunity to train regardless of how good it goes or how many challenges we face,” added Dieckman. “I’d say collectively, the Soldiers are happy to be Soldiers and happy to be doing what they’re doing.”
The 86th Training Division will conduct one more WAREX in 2021 and plans to conduct a WAREX and Combat Support Training Exercise in 2022 as well as a variety of Command Post Exercises to continue to enhance Soldier skills within the Army Reserve.