FORT McCOY, Wis. –
Muffled shouts from a megaphone echoed through the air as a large group of civilian protesters overwhelmed Soldiers manning their base's entry control point (ECP) and made their way onto the compound. Quickly, other Soldiers arrived to assist in controlling and calming the crowd, but the protesters weren't giving up that easily. The scene grew more chaotic as the protesters, angry about their living conditions and lack of basic necessities, shouted and surrounded the Soldiers.
Soon though, leaders emerged among the Soldiers and ordered their teams to grasp each other arms and form a human barrier. Orders to remain calm and keep their hands off their weapons followed. The protesters were not hostile, just desperate for help, and the Soldiers didn't want the situation to escalate.
Staff Sgt. Eric Hsu, a human resources specialist with the 376th Human Resources Company out of Bell, California, was one of the Soldiers who took control of the situation, which was part of a Combat Support Training Exercise (CSTX) at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, Aug. 17, 2021. CSTX enables National Guard and Army Reserve units to achieve, improve and sustain readiness in preparation for future combat operations through realistic scenarios that are evaluated by observer, coach/trainers. The live role-players add a level of realism that can't be achieved through classes or manuals and helps prepare Soldiers for situations they may face if they were deployed.
“Even though we know this is a training environment, this situation - for the decision makers - that stress is real,” Hsu said. “You know that decision making affects your Soldier's life as well, so definitely the stress is there for the leaders.”
Hsu, an experienced noncommissioned officer, said exercises like CSTX are important because it builds team cohesion and exposes the newer Soldiers to the field environment and tactical skills they don't get to experience at monthly battle assemblies.
Capt. Bill Rodning. a military police officer with the 347th Regional Support Group, Minnesota National Guard, rushed to the ECP when he heard the crowd shouting from inside the base. As one of the force protection officers responsible for the security of the base, he wanted to be sure the situation didn't get out of control. Rodning noticed Hsu taking command of the line and directing his team to get everyone out safely. He added that the Soldiers haven't faced a scenario of this scale before, and they did a great job adapting.
“When we tell Soldiers to man an ECP and say don't let anyone in, it sounds easy,” Rodning said. “But when you have a group of people who just keep walking and not obeying you, it kind of forces you to learn 'what do I have to do here?'”
Once the crowd was guided back to the ECP, their leader was identified and the two sides were able to discuss the protesters' concerns. This type of situation is something Soldiers need to prepare for according to Sgt. 1st Class James Ferrell, an observer, coach/trainer (OC/T) with the 1-409th Brigade Engineer Battalion out of Fort Knox, Kentucky.
“When we're doing large-scale combat operations like the scenario is trying to work through, there are going to be large numbers of displaced civilians in the AO (area of operation),” Ferrell said. “So at some point, more than likely, they will encounter large groups of civilians that have been displaced from their homes and are looking for food, water and shelter.”
Ferrell's role as an OC/T is to watch the scenarios unfold, offer guidance as needed, and give the Soldiers feedback on their performance during an after action review. Normally a combat engineer, he enjoys his current assignment and sharing his knowledge with the reserve components.
“Being an OC/T is fun,” Ferrell said. “It's just helping these guys learn how to do things that they don't normally do on a regular basis.”
The nature of future large-scale combat operations means units may not be able to rely on another element for security. Ferrell said that while the Soldiers he trains are great at their specific job skills, they tend to struggle at first with tasks they don't perform on a regular basis like radio communications, driving vehicles and setting up fighting positions. However, with the help of the OC/Ts, he always sees an improvement.
“This particular unit has shown a massive increase in capability on this front from the beginning of the exercise till now,” Farrell said. “If you had seen them before, you wouldn't believe this was the same platoon.”