CAMP GRAYLING, Mich. – The pewter-colored clouds hung low in the sky, hinting at the possibility of rain. A quick breeze fluttered past, dancing in the trees that surrounded the open field where Soldiers with the Michigan Army National Guard's 1st Battalion, 119th Field Artillery Regiment had set up their howitzers in a W-shaped formation.
Gun crews waited by their gun emplacements, quiet conversations, and joking laughter, mixing with the trees' rustling. Suddenly, shouts of "fire mission" interrupted the conversations and the crew who received the mission quickly moved to execute. Soon enough, the howitzer boomed as it sent the 155mm shell downrange.
"Out here on the gun line you get to feel the big, big boom," said Army Sgt. Christopher Riedy, an artillery crew member with the battalion's Battery A, describing the action.
The fire mission was part of the battalion's role at Northern Strike, an annual, large-scale training exercise hosted by the Michigan National Guard that includes a large focus on joint fires operations.
"We're specifically here at Northern Strike to begin to integrate our field artillery ground surface fires with the joint air fires," said Army Lt. Col. Mark Gorzynski, the battalion commander, adding that the air fires consisted of close air support from pilots in A-10 Thunderbolt II and F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft.
Those joint fires were often coordinated by artillery forward observers working in concert with Air Force Joint Terminal Attack Controllers, who guided the pilots in their runs.
For the battalion's gun crews, it meant executing fire missions that ranged from firing a single M777 155mm howitzer to an entire battery firing multi-gun missions.
"We're here to qualify each of our gun crews on a selection of different types of fire missions," said Gorzynski.
Regardless of the number of guns firing, gun crews rarely see their rounds impact. It's the forward observer who usually sees that, calling in corrections, if needed, to get the rounds on target.
"We're miles back," said Riedy, of the gun crews.
That changed during Northern Strike when gun crews executed direct fire missions – engaging individual targets with the guns aimed along a horizontal axis.
"The cool thing about that is you actually get to see what you're shooting at," said Riedy. "A lot of these guys have never experienced that, so it's a really cool experience."
The targets are also much closer with direct fire missions – about half a mile, rather than several miles – than with the more common indirect fire mission, where the guns are fired skyward and the shells arc onto the target from above.
In addition to the "cool" element, there were larger reasons for running through direct fire missions, said Gorzynski.
"It's one of the culminating training requirements for this year's training objectives," he said.
Getting his Soldiers on the gun line to meet those objectives was Gorzynski's focus for Northern Strike.
"Artillerymen doing artillery training is the best thing that we can offer our Soldiers," he said.
For many of the Soldiers, artillery training comes at a time that has seen them take on a variety of other missions.
In March, the battalion was called out as part of COVID-19 response efforts, said Gorzynski. Soldiers primarily manned testing stations and took part in food distribution missions before being called away on other missions.
"Back in May, we had a significant flood that we responded to quickly with about half the battalion," said Gorzynski, which was followed by supporting civil disturbance response efforts in June.
"This battalion has been rather busy," he said.
For Riedy, that's all part of the job.
"No matter what the mission is, we're called up for – whether it be on the gun line or helping the community – it kind of motivates you just being there," he said. "It's cool to see everyone come together and be there to do their job no matter what the [job] is."
Reidy added that the ability to come together stems from being "surrounded by good people" in his unit and gun crew. And, being in the field running fire missions, he said, means ensuring everybody on his team becomes more proficient in their core tasks.
"A lot of it is pretty much cross-training," Riedy said. "The biggest thing is getting my Soldiers trained up on multiple jobs on the gun and furthering their expertise."
And Northern Strike has been a welcome opportunity to do just that, said Gorzynski, adding the COVID-19 pandemic and response efforts meant multiple changes to the unit training plan.
"We're playing a little bit of makeup with training time," he said.
Initially, the unit wasn't slated to take part in the exercise, said Gorzynski. COVID-19 meant many scheduled units were unable to attend, which opened the opportunity for the battalion.
"We were able to pull together, on relatively short notice, this training plan to get to make up that lost training time and to get back on schedule," he said. "I'm very thankful that we were able to do it."
Gorzynski credited the Soldiers in the unit with putting things together so quickly, beginning with focusing on individual Soldier skills before coming to Northern Strike and including provisions to mitigate the potential spread of COVID-19.
"That set us up for coming up here strong at the individual artilleryman level to get right into crew training," he said.
For Riedy, Northern Strike is right where he wanted to be.
"I'm very happy," he said. "We've had a lot of experiences throughout the year. Finally, getting back on the gun line, it's a really good experience."