YAKIMA — “Roll over! Roll over!” the soldiers cried out.
A 19-ton Stryker teetered on its side for an impossibly long second and somehow came down upright on all eight wheels.
The four soldiers inside called out to each other, shouting that they were OK after the near accident.
Their driver, locked in a hatch at the front of the Stryker, would not answer.
They called again. No response.
The four cavalrymen pulled themselves out of the machine and scrambled across the roof to extract the driver, Spc. Daniel Harrell. They found him breathing and unharmed, but stunned.
The boom he heard when the tires hit the ground brought him back to Afghanistan, where his cavalry troop had patrolled a heavily mined portion of Kandahar province last year.
On this training day at the Yakima Training Center, he would not drive again.
“Hopefully that was the last scary incident of the day,” Sgt. 1st Class Lester Favreau said as his guys piled back into their Stryker to continue their exercise.
It wasn’t. Favreau and his team were just getting started on a day full of challenges meant to stress them as they prepare for new Army missions that likely won’t take them back to the Middle East.
They’re among thousands of Lewis-McChord Stryker soldiers in the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division who are testing themselves in the high desert expanse of Central Washington this month. They’re preparing for an assignment backing up the Navy-led Pacific Command’s work in Asia.
The Army considered the exercise so important that it granted the brigade a national-security exemption to train despite the spending constraints brought on by this month’s partial government shutdown.
At Yakima, soldiers are going without the comforts of the deluxe forward bases of Iraq and Afghanistan. They are practicing complex maneuvers they’d use if ever called to fight against a similarly armed military from a developed nation.
It’s called training for a “decisive action,” and it represents a shift from the counter-insurgency fights of the past decade.
The training looks different than the last time the 3rd Brigade crossed the mountains for a month in Yakima in spring 2011. Back then, the brigade knew it had a good chance of going to Afghanistan later that year, and its soldiers practiced kicking in doors and clearing houses of insurgents.
This time, that part of the training was replaced with war games in which platoons try to seek and destroy each other with faux artillery fire.
“If we can train to do the high end of decisive action in a degraded, austere environment, then other missions we get we can probably figure out,” said Col. Dave Bair, the brigade’s commander.
It’s also a time for re-education. Soldiers are breaking habits that kept them safe in Afghanistan, such as marching in single-file lines to minimize the risks of detonating scattered mines.
Favreau’s platoon belongs to the brigade’s main scout unit, the 1st Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment. In Iraq and Afghanistan, scouts in the 1-14 were taught to shoot when they saw a threat.
Now the Army wants them to hold fire and observe the enemy while guiding in more powerful weaponry.
“The cardinal sin of a scout is being seen,” 1-14 Command Sgt. Maj. Sean Mayo said.
His soldiers practiced not being seen in an exercise that pitted two platoons against each other. One would hold the high ground while the other attacked.
The advantage favored the platoon on defense. Its soldiers could hide out in ravines and wait for the opposing platoon to show itself. They practiced in daylight and at night.
“They’re trying to kill us as much as we’re trying to kill them,” said Sgt. 1st Class Jason Strom, 36, as he motivated his platoon in the 1-14’s Bronco Troop for a nighttime defensive mission.
“Think about it. They got the same optics, same thermals as us,” Strom advised his soldiers. “Think about it. What would you use to look up that ridgeline?”
His group took three Strykers into the mountains scanning for the attacking platoon. They dropped off teams of scouts on foot to listen and watch for movements.
Sgt. Joshua White and Spc. Joseph Boyle, both 24, took off on foot up a steep mountain in the dark. They maintained radio contact with their Strykers and occasionally scanned the mountains with their night vision gear.
The two soldiers huffed as they reached the summit and didn’t see any enemy Strykers. They settled in to wait when they picked up the vroom of a heavy Stryker engine moving up the main road in their battlefield.
Both scouts hustled to a different vantage point where they saw all three of the opposing platoon’s Strykers.
White called Strom and radioed in the position. They got permission to call in artillery fire. A white flare lit up the night.
“Boom,” Boyle said.
“Got ’em,” White said.
That’s a win for Strom’s team.
DUSTING OFF EQUIPMENT
This month’s exercises are also enabling soldiers to “dust off the cobwebs” of equipment they haven’t used much since returning from Afghanistan last December. That gear, including the brigade’s 300-some Strykers, sat in storage during the deployment. In Afghanistan, the Lewis-McChord troops drove other Strykers that were already there.
After the troops returned home, tight spending constraints coming down from a shrinking Army bracing for more budget cuts kept soldiers from racking up much new mileage on the old vehicles.
Now, they’re finally seeing what needs to be fixed.
“These vehicles sat for a year in a motor pool and they filled with water. It’s the Pacific Northwest,” said 1st Sgt. Jason Hasby, the senior enlisted soldier in Bronco Troop. “We need to get them out, see what breaks, fix them and get them running again.”
Favreau’s Stryker ran into trouble on its second near-rollover Monday.
After the first, driver Spc. Harrell shook off his shock and moved to the back of the vehicle. The team drove through a dry creek bed following two other Strykers from their platoon.
They grew worried as they saw the first two Strykers grinding up soil and making the terrain worse for the vehicle in the rear.
“We can’t take too many more wadis,” said Favreau, 30, using the Arabic word for dry creek beds.
He put a group of cavalry scouts on a ridge, where they were told to identify targets in the distance without being seen by trainers looking down on their position. They did their job well.
Favreau’s Stryker approached another slope and seemed to hang in the air just like the first time. It came down again, settling on a rock and a tree root that appeared to keep it from tipping.
Another Stryker from the platoon circled back to tow Favreau’s vehicle. The team popped a tire in the process, ripping a gash in the rubber so severe soldiers could not re-inflate it.
They had to walk it out of the ravine, a soldier on foot leading the Stryker on its seven good tires out of the scrub.
“We still accomplished the mission; we just had setbacks,” Favreau said.
He and his teammates appeared frustrated at times in the “rough few hours” they spent in the ravine. But they’re used to Army vehicles breaking down in training or at war. Learning to recover the heavy machines is part of their job.
“Today was a good day for all of us to learn the vehicle’s capabilities,” said Favreau, who is serving with a Stryker unit for the first time.
By the end of the day, Harrell’s spirits picked up, too. He lent a hand repairing the tire and pulled security to practice his tactical movements.
When soldiers asked what happened in the driver’s seat, Favreau spoke for Harrell, saying the near accident “took him back to Afghanistan.”
Harrell said he blacked out. “All I heard was the boom, and I didn’t see anything.”
Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646 adam.ashton@ thenewstribune.com