FORT IRWIN, Calif. — A month in the Mojave Desert without a shower or flushing toilet is no one’s idea of a good time. But for the Army, it is the best way for soldiers to experience the demands of combat.
“There’s no better training in the world” than what the Army offers at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., said Joint Base Lewis-McChord senior Army officer Lt. Gen. Stephen Lanza.
The center is one of three large-scale Army training areas where thousands of soldiers can practice maneuvers at once.
All are moving to so-called “decisive action” training in which a heavily armed Army brigade of 4,000 or more soldiers faces a similar force. At Fort Irwin, the foe is the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, which knows the terrain better than visiting units.
Lewis-McChord’s 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division was the first Army unit from Washington state to get the challenge when it visited the National Training Center in January.
It was an expensive exercise, costing $22 million for transportation, general supplies, fuel and water. Ammunition and food are totaled separately.
The training center gives junior soldiers a chance to use weapons they cannot fire at home. Complex drills also test their limits.
“It’s a blast. This is what I joined for,” said Spc. Rich Calbri of the brigade’s cavalry squadron. His anti-tank unit fired its Stryker-mounted missiles for the first time in three years during the exercise.
Another young soldier, Spc. Ryker Taylor, practiced evading enemy’s attention.
“I like to do stuff. I like to have fun,” he said.
In one exercise, Taylor, 21, grabbed his platoon’s javelin missile launcher to shoot an enemy helicopter.
The shoulder-fired weapon failed, but his peers were pumped just the same.
“Good (expletive)!” Pfc. Verek Nixon shouted.
“It wouldn’t shoot,” Taylor replied.
“But what if it did?” Nixon asked.
“I would have shot a (expletive) helicopter!” Taylor said, beaming.
The NTC gives officers and senior enlisted soldiers a large-scale view of how their units move. Maj. Adam Latham, the cavalry squadron’s executive officer, called them “grand maneuvers,” like the ones in military histories.
“I love it. There is a lot of skill and craft that goes into fighting a near-peer competitor,” like the armored force the 3rd Brigade encountered.
It’s also extremely tiring. NTC is intended to be as stressful as actual combat.
Through the night, soldiers traded guard shifts. Most piled into Strykers to sleep. Some endured icy January nights in just sleeping bags.
They mostly ate MREs, meals ready to eat. A mobile kitchen brought occasional hot meals into the field.
Soldiers did not have much down time.
“Extremely high tempo. There’s never a moment when there isn’t something else you should be doing,” said Capt. Chris Reese, 28, of the cavalry squadron.
“NTC is kicking my” butt, said Spc. Jusup McChesney, an intelligence soldier in the cavalry squadron. “It’s go, go, go.”
For a brigade off the Army’s deployment roster for the first time since 2003, that’s the desired pace.
“It’s important to keep up the intensity because you don’t want complacency to set in,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Sean Mayo, the senior enlisted soldier in the cavalry squadron.