Thursday, October 1, 1998

Soldiers in training

Published in the Columbia Missourian

A man in a camouflage military uniform hunches over a desk and grips a marker tightly. He quickly traces the outline of a map and its legend and looks up, wryly remembering his days as a full-time soldier. "I used to have privates doing this for me," he says. This is Sgt. 1st Class William VanZandt, a master's candidate in business administration at MU. Tomorrow his National Guard unit's drill weekend begins.

Ads for VanZandt 's group are everywhere: "One weekend a month, two weeks a year, the Army National Guard." The ads don't say that many National Guard members have only two weeks of vacation from their jobs every year - and they spend that vacation training with their Guard units. The ads don't say that one Saturday morning each month, the men and women of the Guard roll out of their beds at 5 a.m., drive to their local armory and stand in formation at 7 a.m. to wait for the day to begin. The ads don't say that the following day, they do the same thing again. And, the ads don't say that some members of the Guard do this routine for 20 years or more.

These people are not the full-time Army, which does "more before 6 a.m. than most people do all day." They are not the Army Reserve, which is on call only for the Pentagon. The National Guard has a dual mission: federal military service and state emergency service. They do more in one average drill weekend than in a whole week. Map tracing is only the beginning.

Seven a.m. Saturday. VanZandt stands in formation on Stankowski Field with the rest of the headquarters battery of the 128th Field Artillery Regiment, Missouri National Guard,
Battery 1st Sgt. William Carney announces the order of the day. Arrayed in front of him are a little more than 100 men. No women are present. This is a combat unit; women aren't allowed here. Ninety percent of their training is for combat duty. They are the headquarters unit for the regiment, which is made up of National Guard batteries all over Missouri.

In time of peace, these men are ready to serve Missouri for disaster relief, riot control, maintenance of public order or, most recently, flood control. Staff Sgt. Melvin Wriedt remembers the Great Flood of 1993. "A lot of inventions came out of that flood," he said. "One was the automatic sandbag-filler. It has a hopper and a spout. You hold the bag up and pour. It's better than 'one man hold the bag, one man dig.' " Ten percent of their training is for this type of public service.

This morning, though, their routine is very basic: They must do a certain number of push-ups and sit-ups and run two miles in the time the Army allows. The requirements vary depending on the men's ages. It is their physical training, or PT, test. The men, in sweat clothes clearly labeled "Army," are in varying stages of readiness for the test. Some are taking this "for the record" to be noted officially in their service log. The rest are taking it to see how they measure up to the more rigorous Army standards, which take effect in October.

They do their push-ups six abreast, each with a sergeant keeping count. Sgt. 1st Class Dave Robbins is the most vocal of the bunch. "Give me 65, sir! 65, SIR!" he bellows, his voice splitting the early-morning air. He attracts stares from the few civilian runners out for a jog around the track. In a pressed camouflage uniform complete with extra-shiny combat boots, Robbins is the genuine article.

Some of the soldiers laugh, but most smile quietly. He is respected around here; he's been in the Guard 20 years, after serving in the Navy in Vietnam. This morning he is all military, but tomorrow will be his last official day in camouflage.

He's retiring.

Robbins coaxes, chides or forces the best out of the men doing push-ups in front of him. He does the same when the sit-ups come around. The run gets under way, and in a more subdued tone, he urges the men to run faster. As they get close to the end of the two miles, he's bellowing again, demanding performance from his friends and fellow soldiers.

When the last man crosses the line, it's back to the armory and onto the scale one by one. Weight and height recorded, they hit the showers. Finally, they emerge from the locker room in their camouflage uniforms.

Some of these men have worn other uniforms before in the Navy, Army or Marines. "We collect all types. We're not picky," says battery commander Capt. Harold Spies, who did 67 sit-ups. This unit dispenses with the traditional armed-forces rivalries. They're all artillery men now.

But this weekend they don't get to fire "the big guns," as they do during their two-week annual training. Sgt. 1st Class Joe Reddick, who did 99 push-ups (his personal record is 150 in two minutes), works in the impact zone, where the shells come down. He's a full-time member of the Guard, meaning he also works 40 hours a week in the armory helping the unit stay organized.

The full-timers are a smooth office team. They get their work done mostly on time, banter extensively and keep abreast of each other's personal lives, just like any other office staff, except they wear camouflage to work every day. And their workplace is vacant most of the time. On drill weekends, though, the place is hopping with what the Guard calls "traditional soldiers," meaning citizen-soldiers.

The military and civilian worlds combine in curious ways in the National Guard. Students, young and old, are in this university-town unit. Some, like VanZandt, are getting advanced degrees in accelerated programs. Some are working on their college degrees. The newest members haven't yet graduated from high school.

Civilian life appears elsewhere, too. Staff Sgt. Paul Hegg's daughter is a Girl Scout. He sold over $400 worth of cookies to members of the unit, hand-delivering them out of a huge cardboard box during breaks in the weekend's events. Specialist Steven Walker collected his four boxes, saying, "I'm so happy. I've got my breakfast now."

The day passes slowly as the men wait for tomorrow's field exercises.

Some men check out weapons and equipment for tomorrow. It's a "Warrior Weekend," when some members of the unit head out to a local training area for a mock battle. It's not just a bunch of guys jumping in Jeeps to go play laser tag. This is the military.

Like civilians, though, they enjoy a cold beer at the end of a long day. Robbins supplies a half-keg for the unit in honor of his final drill. It's gone before the men go home for the night. Those whose homes are several hours away bed down in the armory.

Seven a.m. Sunday. First formation. Some soldiers are late because this is the weekend the time changed one hour forward. Carney forgot to mention it at yesterday's final formation. He's fuming. Most of the men checked out their weapons and MILES gear the day before. "MILES gear" is the Army's term for laser tag equipment, which consists of a laser gun and receptors that register hits from the gun. The men wear receptors on their helmets and on their chests and backs. The equipment is heavier and bulkier than the commercial version; each man's total burden is 60 pounds.

Carney is trying to get the laden men together for their safety briefing before the ride up to the Macon Training Ground. He had planned to start the meeting at 8 a.m. It's now almost 8:15.
Spies is waiting for the briefing, too. He's in charge of the detachment going up to the training area. "My unit hasn't been in the field for a while," he says. "They're a bit rusty. But I refuse to get agitated. I'll just let the first sergeant sweat a bit. That's his job."

Carney is definitely sweating. He's about to start the safety briefing and now he can't find Spies. Everyone else is almost ready. At last, all the Humvees have enough gas, and the ones that don't start have been exchanged for ones that do. Carney begins.

"I'm going to forget that I planned this briefing for 0800. I'm going to forget that it's now 0826. I'm going to forget that you were all supposed to get gas for your vehicles yesterday afternoon. I'm going to forget ... " The litany of the morning's errors continues. Discipline here is military mixed with civilian: harsh criticism tempered with positive group-dynamics techniques. "We move on from here. This is a safety briefing."

It is not about the dangers of playing laser tag with M-16s while wearing full camouflage (including face paint) in a wet and wooded area. Instead, Carney delivers a lecture on the hazards of getting to the training ground. "We're going to be traveling on highways varying from two lanes to four lanes, with speed limits varying between 60 and 70 miles per hour." Vehicle-
following distances are carefully specified, in meters, of course - this is the military. If any vehicle can't see the one behind it, it must slow down.

Everything is prescribed: "You assistant drivers are there to keep your drivers alert and awake. Make sure you do this." Everybody wears seat belts. Vehicle headlights are on for safety. Even plans for vehicle breakdowns are outlined. The convoy is registered with the state National Guard headquarters; the registration number is chalked on the side of every vehicle.

The Humvees and trucks pull out onto the highway. Though the speed limit is 70 mph, the convoy's top speed is 50. Other drivers take every opportunity to pass, leapfrogging dangerously up the convoy between Humvees. Civilian drivers almost cause two accidents as the convoy lumbers north.

Exiting the highway onto a dirt road, the convoy finds the going wetter and tougher by the mile. Soon the Humvees' massive wheels are thickly caked in mud. Civilian cars don't have a hope of making it; the lone pickup truck venturing down the road slides and spins for a bit before proceeding. The mud-spattered convoy parks in a clearing for lunch.

Food in the Guard is completely a military affair. Meals ready to eat, or MREs, are standard fare. Though the soldiers have to pay a little more than $3 per MRE during drill weekends, if they are called into service, food is provided for them. Most pay and then complain about the quality of the product. They choose their meals, paying careful attention to the labels: beef stew is good, ham-and-cheese omelets are awful.

"Eat. Don't eat. Eat. Don't eat. Don't eat. Don't eat. Oh, these are good," Sgt. 1st Class Chris Jones, the unit's recruiter, says. He sorts the contents of his MRE. When he's done, there's as much discarded food and plastic wrapping as there was food he ate. The rations aren't terrible; each meal contains 7,200 calories - enough, the Army calculates, to sustain a soldier in the field on one meal pack per day. One of the unit's ex-Navy guys remembers fondly his days of "C-ratch," canned food, the Navy's version of an MRE. But he grins and eats, too.

As the MRE aftertaste wears off, the exercise begins. Some of the men learn to use a new mine detector, like the ones in Bosnia now. A squad goes down the road to test it. One man holds the mine detector; two others walk behind him with weapons held ready for potential attack.

About seven of the group fade off into the woods to prepare for the exercise. They're called OPFOR, opposition forces, and will attack the main group at some point in the afternoon. The rest of the men will practice moving into a new location and setting up a headquarters base there. First they sweep the road for mines. Then they secure the perimeter in a silent operation, using only hand signals to communicate. The men move quickly, though not that quietly, through the forest. They are on the lookout for enemy troops and booby traps. It's eerie - a silent defense against unseen aggressors. It's almost possible to believe there's a real enemy out here, somewhere in Macon.

When the perimeter is almost secure, OPFOR attacks. Two men move in from one side of the road; three others appear farther down on the same side of the road. But where are the rest? The defending men open fire, running, dodging and diving through the brush to get better views of the aggressors while still protecting themselves.

The rest of OPFOR opens fire now that forces are committed away from them. They are next to the road, in a clump of trees, on relatively high ground. Spies and Carney hang back, letting the men fight. They're commanders who need to stay alive as long as they can to coordinate the counterattack and communicate with other units.

Some of the men who were scouting the other side of the road come over to help in the fight. Others stay where they are, guarding against any other possible attacks.

The fight lasts about 15 minutes, but it was compressed in the minds of the men who want to do it all again. "Let's play more!" a couple of them say. OPFOR has been defeated, their position overrun by hard-charging, fast-firing defenders. Despite how much they train for war, weekends like this are really the only time these Guardsmen get to be soldiers in a combat situation. Most of their time on active duty is helping civilians in Missouri.

They took a break to talk a bit about the exercise, but now it's time to clean up. This is the 1990s Army - environmentalism is important. The brass shells expended by the M-16s are valuable. They're easily recyclable, but making new brass is expensive. The Army has also found a military reason: Leaving behind signs of your presence gives valuable information to the enemy. Never mind that the "enemy" that has successfully captured this Midwestern training ground already has a good idea of what kind of ammunition M-16s use.

Back the men go, revisiting their locations during the recent battle. They pick up as much brass as they can. One soldier notices that he's missing something more than just brass.

Specialist Anthony Ash had strapped a radio to his chest when the fight began. It's not there now. After a few minutes of searching, they find it in the place Ash first hit the dirt to fire his M-16 at an intruder. He's chagrined and refuses to carry the radio back to the vehicles for fear of losing it a second time. "He's got it, and I'm not going to touch it, sir," Ash says dejectedly to Spies.

Despite the mistake, Spies gives Ash a break. The unspoken feeling is that a "real soldier" wouldn't have dropped the radio in the heat of battle, even though it is the sort of thing that could very well happen in combat.

Spies and Carney are happy with the way the exercise turned out, even though the group experienced several problems with the laser tag equipment. The convoy packs up and returns to the armory the same way it came: in order, creeping down the highway. This time, though, they're spraying mud everywhere. Even after the 60-mile trip, some mud is still coming off of the tires in the armory's parking lot.

Final formation begins after everyone has returned their weapons and MILES gear. Various announcements are made before the real event begins. Spies' voice rings out in the immense room.

"Sgt. 1st Class Dave Robbins, front and center."

Robbins leaves his place in the ranks and marches up to stand at attention in front of Spies. It is his last day in the Guard, his last few minutes. Spies speaks again.

"Gentlemen, before me stands the example of the citizen-soldier." Spies talks briefly about Robbins' service to the Guard and the level of performance the veteran demands from his fellow soldiers.

Robbins' wife has already been given an award for her support of the Guard and her husband's career. Now Robbins gets a service medal and letters of commendation from President Clinton and Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan. He is trying not to cry. Spies is trying not to cry. Carney, who is reading the letters aloud to the men, is trying not to cry.

When he is permitted, Robbins runs back to his place in line so the men don't see his tears. The new medal falls off while he runs; he stops quickly to pick it up. When he gets back to his place,
the man next to him slips him a handkerchief.

The battery is dismissed, and most of the men crowd around Robbins to congratulate him on his service. When the crowd has just begun to die down, another section of the unit drives up. Robbins is back on the job only five minutes after being told he's done. He checks quickly to make sure the situation is under control, then heads out the back door of the armory with a few of the men. In the bed of Robbins' white pickup truck is a cooler of beer.

Robbins doesn't quite know what to think, but he's smiling and puffing away on his cigar, laughing with his comrades in arms. Spies reminds the group that most of them are here not for the money - though the money is nice - but for the company, the comradeship. Rich says that of his 10 best friends, he met seven in the Guard. Robbins promises everyone he'll be back to visit; they assure him they'll miss him when he's not around.

This is the Guard. Friends will be nearby, not far away on some Army base. Robbins can visit the public armory any time. He can go home to his job and his family.

For the first time in 20 years, Robbins won't be back next month to be a soldier again, even for a weekend. The rest of them will be back. Some will see each other tomorrow; others will have to wait the full month. They part ways smiling and waving, their ambivalent goodbyes indicating they're not quite ready to return to civilian life.