FORT GORDON, Ga. - Georgia Army Guard Spc. Christopher R. Ellis of Winder stood, bent over, hands on his knees, sweaty and exhausted. Setting his M4 rifle down against the bleachers in the briefing area, he commented on the stress fire training he had just completed.
“Now that,” Ellis exclaimed as he stopped to catch his breath in front of the range bleachers, “really tests your ability to concentrate and stay calm. I can imagine what it’s going to be like once we get to pre-mobilization training, and that’s probably going to be even more stressful.”
He and the Security Force Platoon of Georgia’s first Agricultural Development Team, have been working toward this moment for three days. On day four, the training culminates when the more than 25 members of “SECFOR” will put what they have learned to the test.
“If the senior sergeants make the tasks even harder tomorrow,” said a worn out but grinning Army Sgt. Nate Smith of Dunwoody, who also was part of this first group, “it’s going to be just that much better.”
When ADT 1’s “AG” specialists hit the ground in Southeastern Afghanistan next year, they will help Afghan farmers and their communities improve their lives with modern agricultural practices aimed at optimizing use of water, soil, crops and livestock.
It is SECFOR’s job to protect the AG specialists from a Taliban insurgency that is determined to keep them from succeeding in that mission, says Army Staff Sgt. Matthew Rice, the security platoon’s trainer and its dismount supervisor.
“It’ll be our people who’ll leave their gun trucks and patrol the area, keeping a wary eye out for the bad guys,” said Rice. “What the ADT team does in Afghanistan is important to the U.S. and NATO effort to help transform that country from the 19th Century into the 21st. So, it’s our job to make sure no one interferes with that.”
Should insurgents start trouble, SECFOR will cover the ADT as it moves out of the danger zone, Rice said. That is why the platoon is doing stress fire now, instead of waiting until they arrive at the Pre Mobilization Training and Assessment Evaluation at the Guard Garrison Training Center in Hinesville.
Stress fire has been a part of training for deploying units for the past couple of years, Rice said. Soldiers are pushed hard to test their ability to deal with the chaos of a firefight. They move through a series of exercise routines, and then literally drag a fellow Soldier’s body to and from a predetermined checkpoint. Then there is more exercise, followed by an all out run to the firing line, where their weapons and ammo are waiting.
All the while, someone is in their face or standing behind them yelling and screaming to try to get the trainees’ focus off the end task of getting on line, getting on target and then hitting that target.
“Once they pickup and load their rifle, they walk toward their target and continue to fire and reload, with some still yelling in their ear as they go,” Rice said. “It’s all about focus and not letting the chaos take over.”
Rotating through these exercises repeatedly, the platoon seeks to build muscle memory, so that handling and ignoring stress becomes second nature, when – or and if – the rounds start flying, Rice added.
Like all the training the ADT team has completed, said 2nd Lt. William Westrip IV, SECFOR’s commander and a native of Athens, the goal is to sustain individual skills. “But it is also about building confidence in the person on your left and on your right,” he said.
“For 15 months, we’ll be working and living together, depending on each other for council, camaraderie and the will to come out the winner in close combat,” Westrip said. “It’s important that each of us knows that the man standing next to him can be counted on to do his part.”
While some among the security force and the ADT team have deployed before – many to Iraq or Afghanistan – just as many have not, Westrip, explained. “Some know each other, but this is the first time many of them have been together,” he said.
“I’m one of those first timers,” said Spc. John Austin Willis of Watkinsville. He will work as an M249 Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW) gunner on one of SECFOR’s gun trucks. “We’ve all done quite well at working together, and I think we will continue to do so in country – which means that the mission to help the Afghans make a better life for themselves will prevail.”