CAMP GRAYLING, Mich. – It began as a simple, straight-forward mission. Head out from the forward operating base, recover a Humvee that had mechanical issues and bring it back for repair.
As the Soldiers from the Michigan Army National Guard's 1073rd Maintenance Company pulled up to the Humvee, they set up security, backed the wrecker into place and quickly got to work securing the vehicle to the wrecker's towing apparatus.
It was all running smoothly. And that's when the ambush kicked off.
A few small arms rounds at first – random, seemingly potshots. Then came the explosion. Loud, forceful and with clear intent. Then another, and a long burst of machine gunfire.
Shouting commands over the cacophony, the Soldiers returned fire and moved vehicles to provide additional cover for those hooking up to the Humvee.
The machine-gun fire intensified and the Soldiers continued to fire back. They had been on site a few minutes, but for many, it felt like hours.
"Pull," shouted a Soldier above the din, indicating the Humvee was secure and the wrecker crew was ready to move.
The command was given to roll out and armored doors clanged shut as Soldiers who had dismounted their vehicles hastily climbed inside. The convoy swiftly pulled forward, turret gunners still returning fire, a brown-grey dust trail kicking up behind the vehicles.
Everybody made it out alive and unscathed. Even the vehicles sustained no damage – including the Humvee they were sent to recover.
The intensity of the ambush may have been there. Still, it was an ambush using blank ammunition and grenade simulators that was all part of Northern Strike, a two-week-long training exercise hosted by the Michigan National Guard.
"We've got a lot of new Soldiers, many who have never deployed," said Army Staff Sgt. Joel Allard, a senior mechanic with the 1073rd Maint. Co. and the noncommissioned officer in charge of the recovery mission. "This gives them an idea of what it could be like in an actual combat zone."
For many of the Soldiers with the company, it did just that.
"Being here at Northern Strike helps with me being prepared for a mission like this," said Spc. Darrin Hilts, a wheeled vehicle mechanic with the company, adding that the ambush upped the stress level.
"You're under pressure," he said. "You've got enemy contact and you're trying to hook up and book as fast as you can but also trying to do it safely. You have to remember how to do your job and not worry about who is shooting what."
For his role in the recovery operation, Hilts said the correct placement of his vehicle and watching out for a possible ambush were the big things on his mind while heading to the Humvee.
"You're kind of keeping an eye out to see if you see anything moving so you can also call it out, but you're also making sure once you roll up to that vehicle, how you're going to maneuver your vehicle to hook up," he said.
Mission rehearsals ensured those actions were almost second nature, said, Allard.
"We did a bunch of rehearsals," he said, adding the training began with individual actions and movements and were combined into a team effort.
"We have a great team," he said. "The more we train together, the better we will be."
Northern Strike has kept the company's Soldiers busy providing maintenance support, primarily to the 119th Field Artillery Regiment.
"From the time I got on the ground, I've been on the run doing recovery missions," said Hilts. "The first day I was here, I had just gotten off the bus and I was told to get back on the bus to grab the wrecker for a mission."
Soldiers with other support units have been just as busy at Northern Strike. For those with the Michigan Army National Guard's 464th Quartermaster Company, the focus is on ensuring hot showers and clean uniforms are available for those in the field.
"What we bring to the fight is a big morale boost and a sanitary environment for the Soldier via setting up showers and also washing their uniforms and other equipment that can be put through the system," said Army Sgt. Phillip Monroe, a laundry and clothing repair specialist with the 464th QM Co.
The "system" is the Laundry Advanced System, a large-scale washer and dryer combination mounted on a semi-truck trailer that can be used in a field environment.
"We can set up anywhere," said Monroe. "Let's say you're set up in an outpost in the middle of nowhere. We can set up and feed off a water source so we can support your unit."
The system typically uses a 100-gallon water tank but can also be configured to use water directly from streams, lakes, or other water sources said, Monroe.
"It's not just a standard washer and dryer," said Monroe. "I mean, this is a big, complex system of air hoses and thermal fluid and water recycling combined on the back of a trailer."
Setting it up and running the system can sometimes mean long days, but those days are rewarding for Monroe.
"I get a lot of enjoyment out of it because I know that it gives Soldiers high morale," he said. "I haven't seen any negative responses from Soldiers. We curate a happy and clean environment."
That's important in any setting, said Monroe, but especially in a deployed environment.
And Northern Strike is somewhat like being deployed, said Hilts, which has allowed him to build memories and strengthen ties within his unit.
"It's really all about the memories here," he said. "You're getting closer and you become more of a family."