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Macon Telegraph

Soldiers Learn Urban Operations For New Kind Of Combat

By Gray Beverley

29 March 2005
Copyright © 2005 Macon Telegraph. All rights reserved.


Don't just kick the door in.

Feel the threshold. Watch the stairwell. Keep your shoes on unless they remove theirs. Stay off the wall.

That might not sound like training for war, but the 48th Brigade Combat Team is more likely to raid a city residence than to lob artillery or race tanks across an Iraqi desert.

"I never once thought about doing any kind of training like this," said Spc. Bryan Shue Jr. of Macon. "Going to war never struck me."

Weeks before deployment, Shue and other members of the Forsyth-based 148th Support Battalion headquarters company are learning urban operations, such as how to assault a building, manage a civil disturbance and respond to sniper fire.

For many of these soldiers, whose military careers have been limited to weekends and two-week stints, this training brought them face-to-face with an enemy. While perhaps just an image tacked to a wall, the targets were closer than ever before.

"First time I went through, without blanks, I was thinking that it was a real situation, and I froze up," said Shue, 19. "Because I just can't see myself shooting somebody. ... Seeing the photographs and thinking those were actually real people there, that kind of psyched me out at the beginning. But then I started getting the mind-set that we are in a mission. This is going to be our lives. ... They're relying on me to clear the room first. So I got to do my job."

Clearing a room is not simply a matter of shooting anything that moves. Soldiers must be aware of who's covering which corner and that occupants can be friend or foe.

Each assigned a number based on their position in line, soldiers must constantly report where they are and what they see.

Status? One: Enemy down! Two: One enemy down, one (civilian) on the right, the door in the front! Three: Clear. One, move forward! Check the enemy I'll cover you! Enemy dead! Mathis, escort the (civilian) off the battlefield! Squad leader, come in! Squad leader, two enemy down, confirmed dead! ... A-Team, enter room to your left! Stack to the left side of door! A-Team four man coming in! Come in!

Sometimes the exercises seem to move in slow motion.

"The most important thing to learn is to be patient," said trainer Sgt. 1st Class Gene Bass of Buffalo, N.Y., "and not to be so aggressive that they become clumsy in what they're doing."

Even so, the need to improvise gives the mission more of a chaotic feel than, say, an orchestrated SWAT assault seen in movies.

"We call it organized chaos," said Bass, 35. "You never know what you're going to see when you open that door. Hollywood, you know what to expect."

One Army The wide-scale urban operations training is new to the Army, too.

On the edge of a firing range at Fort Stewart is a seven-room concrete structure with interior walls made from shredded tires and no roof.

Capt. Raymond Segarra of Puerto Rico, who supervises this training from a balcony, says this facility is only about seven months old.

Segarra, who spent about 10 years in the reserves and is now on active duty, said it's unfair to compare full-time soldiers, who do this training on a regular basis, to those in the reserve components.

But Segarra said the National Guard troops are useful in Iraq, because many of them have civilian jobs in law enforcement.

"Would I go with these guys? Put me in the unit. I'll go," he said. "This unit has put 100 percent into everything."

Earlier, in a mock village, soldiers had to be reminded to stay away from building walls, which, like the doors, could be booby-trapped. Supervisors repeatedly told their trainees to be assertive when entering a room.

Before a sniper drill began, Bass warned the unit to stay alert at all times.

"When you get lax, start giving high fives, talkin' about 'I killed the sniper single-handedly,' and you're dropping your security, you drop your weapons and you get to be-boppin', " he said. "That's when I send my ace in the hole and then it be on then. ... So stay tactical the whole time."

The group lined up in a wedge formation and walked toward the village.

"Spread out," advised 40-year-old Philip Dodson Jr. of Forsyth. "You're bunching up!" Moments later: "I've got movement in yellow building, to your left!" shouted Sgt. Ernest Soria of Lilburn.Gunfire erupted in the village and echoes through the southeast Georgia woods.

"Watch those windows! Watch those windows!" warned Soria.

Sgt. 1st Class Gail Johnson of Milledgeville, the platoon leader, noted a mistake. When the sniper fire began, the unit should have disguised itself by setting off a smoke canister.

"I don't see any smoke anywhere," Johnson scolded.

Machine-gun fire followed.

Spc. Travis Lewis of Marietta has been "shot" in the chest, and it's several minutes before anyone comes to his aid.

The team cleared buildings in search of snipers.

"It's too much running around," said 20-year-old Pfc. Tiffany Bell of Macon, sarcastically. "I don't need this in my life!"

About three minutes later, the exercise was over. Bass told the group that it did not take proper cover and probably should have spent more time preparing.

On another exercise, Johnson was invited into a building to negotiate with a village leader, who was upset because Shue allegedly touched an Iraqi woman. Johnson took his shoes off out of respect for the Iraqi but was told later that it's probably not a good idea to be shoeless in a war zone.

Soldiers tend to fire their weapons while standing sideways, as if deer hunting or firing on a range. Instead, members of the 48th were instructed to square off directly with their target, to maximize the protection offered by their vests.

"The only real hiccup was our egress plan and the same team clearing every building on the upstairs ... and the way we made our approach to the target," Bass said of the sniper mission. "But the aggression and the motivation and talking to everybody, that was real good."

The next day, Johnson looked back on the unit's two months at Fort Stewart.

"Much more aggressive now than they were in the beginning," he said. "We had to get them out of the civilian mode and get them into the military mode. ... Before, then, they was like any little bitty thing would get 'em teed off. ... Now they want to learn."

The Middle East is less than two months away.

Getting serious About 30 members of the Forsyth unit sit on benches inside a tent, somewhere among the woods, dirt roads and clearings that cover this five-county Army post.

In front of the group is Sgt. 1st Class Albert Watts of Selma, Ala., and outside is a collection of blue and orange railroad cars that double for an Iraqi village. Watts is about to brief the soldiers on an upcoming exercise on civil disobedience.

But for the moment, he's taking some ribbing about his home state.

"They had to put the dimmer switch for the headlights back on the floorboard," one Georgian calls out. "People from Alabama kept getting their feet tangled up in the steering wheel!"

Watts, 40, plays along. After learning that Shue is a company medic, Watts says that if he falls on the battlefield, "You just let me lay there!"

There is plenty of kidding around.

"We have to have that to keep our morale up," said 36-year-old Spc. Lisa Mathis of Macon.

"Because, I mean, it's so easy for the morale to go down. A lot of us have never done this before. A lot of people have never left home."

Before Fort Stewart, the company got about eight hours of training in civil disobedience each year. (Soldiers from the 48th were assigned to the G-8 summit on St. Simons Island.) This headquarters company is more apt to deliver supplies and fix vehicles than storm buildings. But as battalion 1st Sgt. Glen Johnson indicates, these soldiers could be in a convoy that is halted in a hostile urban neighborhood.

"I think everybody here realizes there might be a chance they would have to do it," he said. "They're taking this training very serious. ... It has started to really click with them that it's more than a two-week (annual training). ... I think the magnitude of what they're doing is coming to them."

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