The howitzer greets the soldier's command of "fire" with a deafening roar, propelling a 90-pound round over scenic prairie that serves as Joint Base Lewis-McChord's artillery range.
Three seconds and 1,200 meters later, the round explodes with the energy of a quarter-stick of dynamite. There’s a puff of smoke, but no sound – not immediately, anyway.
One one-thousand. Two one-thousand. Three one-thousand. The blast wave breaks over the Stryker artillerymen of the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division at their observation post.
In about an hour, 20 rounds – with one dud – are fired by the two next-generation 155mm howitzers manned by 10-soldier sections.
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Each time, the sound carries perhaps as far as Parkland-Spanaway to the east, Yelm to the south and Lacey to the west. Weapons noise has been known to travel even as far as Fox Island.
The Army’s newest howitzer is thousands of pounds lighter due to its titanium construction, making it easier for soldiers to maneuver. But those advances do not extend to its decibel level.
“There’s nothing quiet about it,” said Lt. Col. JP Moore, who commands the 386 soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 37th Field Artillery Regiment, during Thursday morning’s training exercise.
The joint base is turning up the volume on the “sounds of freedom” in a big way after a period of relative quiet for surrounding communities.
Officials say the booms will be a weekly occurrence throughout the spring and summer. Units are ramping up their training schedule now following delivery of refurbished equipment and the completion of individual training.
“As the weather gets nice, and we got more and more units going out to the ranges, the likelihood of the communities hearing more booms from the field artillery is going to increase,” said Joe Piek, a Lewis-McChord spokesman.
The base’s four 155mm howitzer battalions – one assigned to each of the three Stryker combat brigades and another assigned to the 17th Fires Brigade – will split time at the range for the first time in two years after returning from combat deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan last year.
The base is advising residents of late-night firing, including demolitions and plastic explosives, Monday through Friday of next week.
The deployment of some 18,000 soldiers through last fall was notable as Lewis-McChord’s public affairs office logged just six noise complaints in 2010, its lowest number since tracking began more than a decade ago.
That could very well change this year.
A 2009 Army noise study included in an analysis of growth at Lewis-McChord examined the effects of demolitions and large-caliber weapons during simultaneous training of the three Stryker brigades.
It found that the noise zone defined as being highly annoying to more than 15 percent of the population would expand to encompass the Nisqually Indian Reservation and City of Roy and the northern part of Yelm.
The study concluded “that an increase to a full-up training component of three (Stryker brigades) could result in an increase in the number of complaints received from residents who were previously unexposed or infrequently exposed to noise from military training.”
To try to hold down noise complaints, Lewis-McChord officials encourage units to end late-night firing as early as possible. They also try to schedule company- and battalion-level training at the more isolated Yakima Training Center.
Lewis-McChord is also preparing to receive additional aircraft. But statistics show demolitions and explosions, not helicopter and jet noise, are the primary cause of noise complaints. Piek said crew members are told to stay above 2,000 feet and avoid flying over densely populated areas.
Roy Mayor Karen Yates said there have been periods of firing noise during the last couple of years, but it has been less frequent than in the past.
“You have to get reacclimated to it,” she said. “I’m sure we’ll receive a few phone calls and the post will receive a few phone calls or more. We’ll work with it. It’s not anything that we haven’t dealt with in the past.”
The four howitzer battalions at Lewis-McChord have all changed over to the M777 Lightweight Field Howitzer, which the Army began fielding in 2006. It is at least 5,700 pounds lighter than its predecessor, the M198 Towed Howitzer, which has been in service since the 1960s.
And while the cannons are noisy, Moore said their use in training ensures soldiers are well prepared so that they come home from any future combat tours in one piece.
“If we didn’t do that, it could cost equipment and lives,” he said.
Christian Hill: 253-274-7390 firstname.lastname@example.org