FORT POLK, La. – In oppressive heat with humidity thicker than a wool blanket, Army National Guard Soldiers are training to build combat readiness and capacity.
The theme at the Joint Training Readiness Center is to provide tough, realistic training so Soldiers experience their worst days here rather than in a combat theater.
JRTC is considered a premier combat training center, and thousands of Army, Army National Guard and Army Reserve Soldiers rotate through every year to gain valuable training time in “the box” fighting a notional – but capable – opposing enemy force.
The lessons Soldiers learn here will last a lifetime, Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said during a visit July 26 with some of the nearly 4,500 Guard Soldiers led by the California National Guard’s 79th Infantry Brigade Combat Team on JRTC rotation.
“It never ceases to amaze me all that our Guardsmen do,” Hokanson said. “They’ve been fighting COVID, supporting civil unrest and disaster response missions, and now they’re at JRTC in an extremely challenging environment. One of the great things the trainers said is that they listen, are coachable and are getting better and better.”
Hokanson cited the enduring impact of his experience as a company commander at the National Training Center on Fort Irwin, California, and said every Soldier should experience a combat training center rotation.
“It’s a simulated 14-day war where you are focused solely on doing your job and taking care of the Soldier to your left and right,” he said. “They put you against the latest threat model and challenges, with a real opposing force that is going to try everything they can to win just like you are. I think it’s important for everybody to be tested like that.”
According to the JRTC website, JRTC and Fort Polk train BCTs and security force assistance brigades to conduct large-scale operations on a decisive action battlefield against a near-peer threat with multi-domain capabilities. Fort Polk enables units to increase readiness to support globally deployable missions.
While the battlefield is tilted largely in favor of the home team – a permanent party of opposing-force Soldiers augmented by rifle and engineer companies and an artillery battery that wreaks havoc on the rotational force day and night – Guard Soldiers hold their own and the experience and cohesion they gain is invaluable, Hokanson said.
During a CTC rotation, Soldiers execute troop leading procedures, maneuver operations, sustainment and resupply, thorough rehearsals, and force-on-force and live-fire exercises.
Army Capt. John Massey, the JRTC operations group rotational maneuver planner, said a CTC rotation is a culminating event that units prepare years in advance to complete.
“Here, units have an opportunity to exercise in real-time all of the training they’ve been building on for 18-24 months,” Massey said. “They’re tested in collective training at all levels of a brigade under a division construct. Each battalion has their own objective to fight and destroy. It’s the ultimate training event test.”
Units are authorized to bring an extensive array of weaponry to JRTC, including M109 155mm Paladin artillery systems and M777 howitzers, down to smaller arms like mortars, machine guns and individual rifles. The California Guard executed one of its largest rail movements ever, moving more than 1,000 pieces of equipment to JRTC to support this rotation.
As part of the 79th IBCT rotation, National Guard Soldiers from 21 states are here to support the brigade and participate in the training.
Soldiers with the Mississippi Guard’s 1st Battalion, 204th Air Defense Artillery Regiment, are providing air defense artillery support with Avenger air defense systems. This system provides mobile, short-range air defense protection for ground units against helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles, fixed-wing aircraft, and cruise missiles. Massey said units have recently started incorporating air defense and counter-UAS pieces into their rotations.
Aviation, engineer, support and cavalry units also have a crucial role in the simulated battle, just as they would in combat.
Sgt. 1st Class Clifford Skinner, the acting operations sergeant major with Headquarters and Headquarters Troop, 18th Cavalry Regiment, California National Guard, said he has seen rapid adaptability in the Soldiers in his unit during their rotation.
“We’re maneuvering quite well, given the terrain and conditions,” Skinner said. “It’s our first time in any environment like this. The fact that we’ve hit the ground running to move, find the enemy and exploit their weaknesses is working out well for us.”
Senior Enlisted Advisor Tony Whitehead, the CNGB SEA, accompanied Hokanson on the visit and noted high enthusiasm, despite the many challenges.
“To see our Soldiers out in the field, getting after it is inspiring,” Whitehead said. “They’re motivated and working hard. Leaders at every level are getting a chance to lead. They’re smiling ear-to-ear because they’re doing what they signed up to do.”