At the end of the count, the squad explodes out of the cots, arranging itself prone on the ground with M4 rifles pointing outward in a circle. The soldiers are providing “360-degree security” as their imaginary helicopter takes off and leaves them behind.
Ayala’s squad is one of two that will conduct an “air assault”—movement via UH-60 “Blackhawk” helicopters onto an objective. Transport by helicopter is faster than by ground, and surprise is a key tool in Afghanistan. During the live-fire exercise, two Blackhawks will land to drop 1st Platoon outside a small compound, through which it will then assault. The other platoons will arrive by truck. “It’s pretty much a reward for how well we’ve been doing,” Ayala says, not too boastfully.
After repeated rehearsals, the squad expresses its eagerness to move on to from Fort Irwin to the real war in Afghanistan.
“Living conditions aren’t the greatest, but the training has been really great,” says Ayala. Afghanistan will be the 9-year veteran’s third deployment, and his second to Afghanistan.
Spc. Robert “Combat Bob” Kimler, who seems to have as many nicknames as he does opinions, put it into perspective: “We’ve been training for this for two years.”
Spc. Adam Eilers of Gutenburg says, “If there a plane tomorrow, I’d be on it.”
That’s not to say they’re not also looking forward to more-immediate gratifications of CALFEX. In the afternoon, they’ll go through the motions twice. Once, as a “dry-fire” exercise without ammunition. The second time, with “blank” ammunition: All the bang, but none of the bite.
Finally, tomorrow, it will be the real deal. “This will be the first time I’ve ever seen stuff explode,” says Pvt. Nathan Smith of Ida Grove.
Any time soldiers use live ammunition is an opportunity for caution, hence the care and repetition with which the company practices the live-fire scenario. Capt. Merchant gathers all participants around a scale-model terrain map constructed out of rocks, cardboard, spray paint, and more rocks. White "engineer" tape marks out phase and grid lines, corresponding to soldiers' maps.
Using green “hundred-mile-an-hour” tape and some cardboard boxes, some artistic soldier has even created two model helicopters to help illustrate the air assault. Chief Warrant Officer Jenice “Widowmaker-34” Skelly, the tobacco-chewing pilot AH-64 “Apache” attack helicopter, enthusiastically declares the helicopters “cute.”
“Now you’ve done it,” says one of her fellow aviators of 4th Combat Aviation Brigade (“CAB”), 101st Airborne Division. “You’ve gone and used the ‘C’ word!”
To help coordinate its Close Air Support (“CAS”), Alpha Company is joined by two Air National Guard Joint Tactical Air Controllers (“JTAC,” pronounced "jay-tack"). Staff Sgt. Jake Torgerson is from the Washington Air National Guard’s 116th Air Support Operations Squadron, or “ASOS” (pronounced “ay-sauce”). Tech Sgt. Damon Girot is from the Indiana Air National Guard’s 113th ASOS. Each will travel to Afghanistan of different rotations during the next 12 months, and will likely support the 2-34th BCT operations there.
“I’m a moderately proficient Infantryman, but I’m a subject-matter expert in my JTAC stuff,” says Torgerson, who was a Marine mortarman before he joined the Air Guard. “I get to do all the fun infantry stuff—shoot rifles, get dirty—but I don’t have to put up with any of the bull----.”
“No pun intended, but we’re the red-headed step children of the U.S. Air Force,” says Torgerson. (Both he and Girot have red hair.) “The Air Force loves the capability we bring to the effort, but hates dealing with us. Mostly, we try to avoid each other.”
Girot stops by the JTACs’ two-seater Humvee, the one that’s filled with radio-communications equipment. He offers Torgerson a bottle of sunscreen. “Ginger sauce?” he asks.
Company commander Capt. Jason Merchant knows that the months to come could get a little gritty. He doesn’t talk about specifics, but drops hints like mortar shells around the perimeter of truth. “There are probably 75 villages in our future Area of Operations,” he says, using the Army’s usual color-coding system for describing loyalty to the Afghan national government. “One is ‘green,’ two are ‘amber,’ and the rest are ‘red.'” He jokes that, at the end of his company’s deployment, all they’ll have to do is turn one village “green,” and they’ll be able to claim a 100-percent improvement.
His driver, Sgt. David "Bone" Tielbur, describes how older soldiers with combat deployments are talking more about upcoming realities. “That’s gotten the attention of some of the younger guys, but you can’t always lead a horse to water …” he says. “Besides, you don’t want to scare people unnecessarily.”
First Sgt. Chris Harrison of Cedar Rapids is the highest-ranking non-commissioned officer in Alpha Company, and is responsible for the safety and care of soldiers. He’s proud of the fighting spirit and skills that Alpha Company has already demonstrated at the National Training Center. “When we did a [Combat Outpost, or “COP”] exercise, we had 300 people come at us. The [exercise observer-controllers] said that most units last 15 minutes,” he says. “We lasted an hour.”
Merchant puts his soldiers to bed early, and gives them an unusually late 0800 wake-up order for the final day of the exercise. There will be a leisurely final walk-through briefing at the terrain model, and the exercise will begin at 1300 hours.
Nearly nothing will go as planned.