May 22, 2015 –
FORT MCCOY, Wis. – Most passengers in a vehicle will occasionally watch the scenery pass by outside the window, just watching the trees, the grass and the birds. When you’re a route clearance Soldier, watching out your vehicle window is very different as you look for improvised explosive devises and explosive hazards.
The 420th Engineer Company (Route Clearance) out of Indiana, Pennsylvania, honed these skills during Warrior Exercise 86 15-02 at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, May 2 to 22.
“Mainly, because we’re a route clearance platoon, it’s been route clearance and doing different training on different scenarios,” said 1st Lt. Justin Brown, 1st platoon leader, 420th Eng. Company. “Some of the scenarios have been interrogating IEDs, HMEs, homemade explosives, and on different routes while interrogating different sites, getting attacked and how to maneuver our vehicles and basically take down the enemy while reconning the route.”
Interrogating is a term used by route clearance personnel to mean investigating if an object is, in fact, an explosive hazard, usually using the arm of the Buffalo mine-protected vehicle.
One situational exercise in particular was somewhat unique for the unit when they served as the clearance package for an MEB battalion clearing the route of a suspected contaminated area.
“As engineers, we can work with any company. As route clearance, we technically work with every company because we clear the routes before they are able to move, period,” said Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Loebs, 1st platoon sergeant, attached to the 420th Eng. Company from the 388th Engineer Company. “Without us out front clearing those routes, that inhibits any other units from being able to move.”
Although this situation is one route clearance companies may face, the complexity was daunting.
“This is definitely something that needs to be practiced. Back to the Reserve Soldier not here that often, and then trying to piece together this complex exercise on spur of the moment,” said Loebs, a West Palm Beach, Florida, resident. “We executed and succeeded, but it needs some work.”
The mission was a success, but it was also an opportunity to see how the different units worked their piece and integrated with the other assets.
“Even though today was a little bit confusing, it did help out a little bit to see how different organizations can come together and plan. The engineers were working with the military police, the military police were working with the engineers and [chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear]. Everyone came together,” said Brown, a Upper Marlboro, Maryland, native. “It’s kind of like how the Reserve is, you pull all these entities into one and they have to work together. It was kind of confusing because it’s like I was in the beginning, taking something I really don’t know that much about and seeing how I can get it to work. It’s helping other people who really don’t know about route clearance or CBRN or MPs learn how to start working together. It was a stepping stone in the right direction.”
While building relationships across military occupational specialties, the engineers also built bonds with engineer counterparts. While the 420th Eng. Company was the lead for receiving the training, they were augmented by various other 412th engineer units from throughout the eastern states.
“From day one to present we’ve enhanced quite a few of our skills. We came in with a couple people from different units and the unit that was supposed to be here, the 420th, and we’ve had to quickly learn to work as a team and understand each other and understand what each other does,” said Loebs. “From the first mission it was kind of rough, to the last mission where they said we were the best ones they’ve seen. That shows we’re very good at adapting and overcoming.”
Soldiers augmenting a unit like this is not uncommon.
“You have to deploy at a certain strength so we had to come here at 80 percent strength for our unit,” said Brown. “This is definitely a normal thing that would happen in the Reserve.”
While it may be considered normal, the integration of Soldiers from different units is not always easy.
“With the Reserve you have so many different avenues thrown at you. You have the civilian who has a certain lifestyle that one day a month, they throw on their uniform. To have them come from different units and not know each other, you really have to be a people person to be able to integrate into a different scenario every time. For something like this to happen with this many types of people integrated into it, that shows a lot on them,” said Loebs. “You can have those environments where it’s a brotherhood and they’re the outsider and ‘we’re not letting them in’ verses this environment, where we enabled them to be able to support each other and empowered them to succeed out here. That’s not my success, that’s what they’ve done.”
Successful integration of the Soldiers is only one of the successes for this route clearance team.
“They came in here from different units to fill one platoon without knowing what each others job skills are and having to rely on them and teach them before we went out on missions to be able to execute. They followed through on that and succeeded at it. Even if they didn’t succeed, one of the things I said from the beginning was, ‘Failure is okay, we just need to make sure we learn from it.’ Those failures didn’t happened again on the last day of the training,” said Loebs. “They had their confidence built up and they were able to execute and even if they failed, they stood back up and they executed the next day and succeeded. That’s a great take-away from an exercise like this.”
The Soldiers weren’t the only ones who grew from this exercise.
“It allowed me to really see how to do the job, do the task, how to integrate different Soldiers, to integrate different pieces of equipment that I’ve never worked with before, knowing how each piece of equipment works. It’s also knowing how to get Soldiers who only come one weekend out of the month, two weeks out of the year to actually work as one,” said Brown. “It’s definitely a learning curve on how to get the Soldiers to understand what’s going on in my head to actually play out to each one of their understanding. I tell them, ‘It sounds good in my head, but do you understand what I’m trying to say.’ That’s the hardest part, sometimes as leaders we talk, but it doesn’t always come out the way you want it to.”
While Brown learned to be better understood, Loebs took away lessons learned by his fellow Soldiers.
“I think it gives them different avenues to tackle the ever-changing world out there. Everybody has deployed at different times and everybody can pull different things from their deployments and it’s a learning experience,” said Loebs. “I’ve learned a lot from the things I’ve heard out here. Now it might not be the right thing for when we deploy, but I can keep it in the back of my head in my toolbox. I might be able to utilize it or tweak it a little bit and make it our own.”
While most of the Soldiers showed growth during the exercise, Brown sees the most valuable outcome as the incorporation of all aspects of the Soldiers’ training.
“The value of this training is to basically bringing everything full circle. Soldiers throughout the year, we train on different tactics such as mine-sweeping, interrogating, how to recon a route, different route recon tasks,” said Brown. “The value of this training has been seeing everything put into play, the whole package put into play as one: seeing Soldiers able to operate the Buffalo, seeing Soldiers able to operate the Husky, seeing the platoon leader and platoon sergeant make calls and the Soldiers actually do it. It’s seeing how everything gels and comes together and the beautiful picture that it makes.”