FORT McCOY, Wis. –
"Gas! Gas! Gas,” yell the Soldiers on a cool, cloudy morning in the woods of Wisconsin.
Sgt. Christian Prado quickly looks to the left and sees Soldiers running out of their tents, which are still soggy from a night of heavy downpours and storms. While Soldiers scramble out of their tents, they grasp for their gas masks and dawn their chemical protection gear in a matter of seconds. In the distance he sees yellow smoke billowing from a green field. His voice is muffled by the gas mask covering his face, but Prado can still be heard yelling to his Soldiers their next objective.
“We need to make sure our trucks are being taken care of,” Prado shouted through his mask. “And make sure the first sergeant and our commander are all protected!”
Prado looks around his unit and sees some Soldiers have successfully donned their gas masks and grabbed weapons to secure the area, but notices others are still struggling.
Luckily for everyone, this is all part of a training exercise, and there will be opportunities to correct and prepare these Soldiers for the next “gas attack.” Prado and his unit, the 730th Transportation Company out of Los Angeles were among roughly 6,000 Soldiers training during a Warrior Exercise (WAREX) in July at Fort McCoy.
Despite training setbacks due to COVID-19, the detailed preparation and adjustments behind this year’s WAREX events are showing several positive effects on the combat readiness of U.S. Army Reserve Soldiers. WAREX is a training exercise designed to prepare units for conflict and give them the opportunity to train together with other Army Reserve Soldiers. The 86th Training Division hosted two exercises, the first in June, and the second in early July. Both events involved Army Reserve Soldiers from across the country, including units as far away as Puerto Rico.
Maj. Jacob Spriggs, 1st Operations Brigade, 86th Training Division, deputy exercise control chief for the mission support element with 1st Ops Brigade, was responsible for much of the planning behind both of this year’s Warrior Exercise events at Fort McCoy.
“Our planning process actually starts two years out,” Spriggs said. “We’re actually in the middle of our planning cycle for next year’s WAREX events, with the goal of making sure we have all the assets in place to support those units and their training, have ammunition for the ranges, enough simulators, and training facilities and support.”
The coordination of supplies and resources begins far before WAREX events begin. During the July WAREX, 74,000 gallons of water and 43,500 meals were allocated for the entire exercise. Participating Soldiers consumed roughly 5,000 gallons of water per day. For weapons training, the Army used approximately 344,000 blank rounds of 5.56 mm ammunition, 36,000 rounds of 7.62 mm ammunition, and 580 smoke grenades and simulators (to represent mock chemical attacks). Roughly 6,000 gallons of fuel were used per day to run military vehicles and generators throughout Fort McCoy and its training areas.
“We plan on filling a 20,000 gallon fuel bladder and plan on utilizing all of that fuel over the course of the exercise,” Spriggs said. “So we use a lot of resources.”
One of the new components at WAREX this year is the use of drones. It's been a four year endeavor to receive authorization of drones for this particular exercise.
“Drones are being used by insurgents, being used by Russian forces in the Ukraine, by the Chinese, and they’re in use globally,” Spriggs said. “So they’re a threat as a battlefield enabler, so we have to adapt to their presence ... and even just have situational awareness.”
In addition to the 2,000 Soldiers conducting training in the July WAREX event, there are also roughly 900 training partners.
“Those are the military members who are on the backside of the training and making sure everything is coordinated and lined up,” Spriggs said. “And then also supporting that, we also have the contractors, coordinating with them.”
One of the biggest challenges, compared to previous WAREX events, is COVID-19 — its impact on units that haven’t seen each other face-to-face in nearly 18 months and the hurdles it poses during planning and execution of WAREX. Last year’s exercises were canceled due to COVID-19.
This year at WAREX, there has been more attention to detail than ever, especially with regard to COVID-19 mitigation based on the latest CDC guidelines. Vaccination and testing are a major priority at Fort McCoy, as those who are not vaccinated are mandated to wear appropriate face coverings, Spriggs said.
“Because we haven’t been working together, we’ve been working separately,” Spriggs said. “For a lot of these units. The only contact they've had really, up until the past couple of months, was via online teams, via phone calls, or email.”
Lt. Col. Joel Buffardi, commander of the 389th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion (CSSB), 77th Sustainment Brigade, Fort Totten, N.Y., is preparing for a future deployment. He said the WAREX event could not have come at a better time for his Soldiers.
“WAREX is a good rep for us,” Buffardi said. “And this is an indicator of how well we will do, working with each other. So you got a lot of good human interaction going on. Just people getting to know each other, good relationship building.”
Spriggs credits the resilience of Soldiers for overcoming the obstacles they’ve had to face in light of COVID-19.
“That’s what makes WAREX here at Fort McCoy unique,” Spriggs said.
WAREX is designed to help soldiers quickly adapt to different environments, including COVID.
“I can't state how much improvement we've seen, just from the fact that they’re willing to work together,” Spriggs said. “They’re able to see one another’s faces in real life and read body language and be around other Soldiers, wearing the uniform. And quickly get themselves back in the mindset.”
It’s that ability to adapt and overcome those challenges that makes Spriggs most proud about these Soldiers.
“We're all reservists here,” Spriggs said. “So there’s that added cost of being a citizen soldier, of not only stepping away from your family and your normal life, but also your civilian job, and interrupting that and your civilian career.”
The improvement in warrior skills, unit combat readiness, and overall investment the Army is making in its Soldiers by way of such an exercise is most satisfying to Spriggs and his team.
“If we can get that realization to those Soldiers here, about the seriousness of it, the importance of the jobs they do here, if we can bring that same light to them, then we’ve done our job,” Spriggs said.
Meanwhile, back at the 730th Transportation Company’s area of operations where Sgt. Prado has just led his team through a gas attack simulation, he begins to assess how his squad has performed.
“We don’t want to just follow others, but know how to do things and get these tasks done here by ourselves,” Prado said. “We can’t always just follow someone. We need to learn how to lead, and I want to grow and help my squad be prepared and in a position to succeed. And make sure everyone is OK, and everyone is safe.”