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Battle training preps Fort Knox soldiers for war on terror

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  • Battle training preps Fort Knox soldiers for war on terror


    FORT KNOX, Ky. — After two days and nights of carrying heavy packs up steep hills, fighting off midnight insurgent attacks and lugging wounded comrades through bone-chilling rains, 1st Sgt. James McWhorter crouched in the woods preparing to assault a Taliban-held Afghan village.

    Islamic calls to prayer blared from loudspeakers as McWhorter — exhausted from two days with almost no sleep or food — gave silent hand commands to his squad, urging them out of the woods and around a hail of fire from a jumble of buildings.

    “Go, go, go!” he yelled, as a dozen U.S. soldiers flooded the village, shooting defenders with paintballs and securing a fake cache of Taliban weapons.

    For more than 40 non-commissioned officers at Fort Knox, the assault marked the end of an unusually extreme, 57-hour combat-training endurance exercise called “Mangudai,” named after the special forces of Genghis Khan's Mongol army who could fight for days without food or sleep.

    Fort Knox war games

    Designed to test the limits of officers' physical, mental and emotional endurance, the emerging Army exercise offered a revealing window onto modern combat training in the era of Iraq and Afghanistan.

    “If you're fighting a hardened enemy like Al Qaeda, you have to learn to be even tougher and harder,” said Sgt. Major John Wayne Troxell, a veteran Stryker Brigade commander who based the training exercise on his own Army Ranger training. “Pain and agony helps you prepare.”

    Over three days last week, participants had to crawl on their bellies under real machine-gun fire, shimmy commando-style over a single rope high in the air and march for more than 22 miles through forests.

    They rappelled off towers, fought through a bayonet course, coped with role-playing Iraqi guides, navigated roadside bombs and endured ear-splitting bomb attacks — never knowing what would come next.

    They were allowed only a few hours of sleep, one full food ration and no tobacco or caffeine. As the exercise wore on, their feet blistered, muscles failed, minds faltered, tempers flared and four of the original 46 participants dropped out.
    (2 of 3)

    Near the end, when the exhausted soldiers were offered foul-smelling rice balls made with wet cat food, some barely hesitated.

    Organizers said they learn more about participants in the high-stress, exhaustion-induced training than any other environment. How they perform can factor into promotions, while the bonds formed through suffering can strengthen units, organizers said.

    “You can't hide weaknesses,” Troxell said, whose own war experience includes heading a 3,500-strong brigade that saw 54 killed and 500 wounded in Iraq.

    Pushed to their limits
    It all began at 4:30 a.m. last Wednesday on a Fort Knox parking lot filled with soldiers lugging 60-pound packs, combat rifles and helmets.

    Fort Knox war games

    Most were senior enlisted, career sergeants in their 30s. Nearly all had been to Iraq and Afghanistan several times. There were a handful of women, some desk workers, an Army band member and a visiting Serbian soldier.

    First Sgt. Gene Siler, whose 3rd Brigade, 1st Infantry combat team was recently moved to Fort Knox from Fort Hood, Texas, as part of the military's base-realignment program, was among those set to head to Afghanistan later this year for his fourth tour.

    “This is what a lot of us will be going through, so it's good training, even though it's pretty intense,” he said as he shouldered a heavy machine gun and stuffed a Meal-Ready-to-Eat ration into his rucksack.

    Then orders came in: Clear a road harassed by the Taliban militia.

    Jumping into heavy Army transports, they were driven to a wooded area where “Hamad,” a soldier dressed in an Islamic head scarf and long Arabic shirt, waited nervously. Hamad drew a map in the dirt with a stick and would only say “good,” “bad,” “boom” and “hamad house.”

    Soon they were creeping through the forest and along a trail, avoiding roadside bombs, when Hamad ran off yelling “danger, Hamad family!” Atop a nearby hill, gunfire and explosions suddenly erupted, resulting in two wounded — a Taliban member and a U.S. soldier, who they carried through the woods on a stretcher.
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    “Remember, his guts are hanging out!” Troxell yelled at the medics.

    Quickly bundled onto trucks, the group then arrived at a four-story rappelling tower. At one point, Sgt. Carolyn Harvey, an administrator sergeant, stood on the edge, afraid to rappel back down the ropes. Others urged her on.

    “I don't want to jump,” she said, before finally disappearing over the edge.

    Later, with the sky darkening and heavy rain predicted, the tired soldiers marched through the woods to establish a combat outpost, a replica base complete with barbed wire, defensive towers and tents. There, they quickly came under attack from soldiers acting as insurgents. They fired back, shouting orders and scrambling to secure the area.

    Fort Knox war games

    Afterward, soldiers passed a few minutes of down time talking and eating fortified, processed cheese spread onto slabs of fortified bread.

    They needed the energy, because soon they were at a special range, crawling for 300 meters on their bellies in the dark under live machine-gun fire and barbed wire to simulate a night infiltration. Deafening bombs exploded while loudspeakers blasted Arabic music.

    “Oh man, I'm flashing back to Iraq,” Tagalicud said.

    Afterward, a solider said a foot injury meant he couldn't do the miles-long march back. Troxell gruffly ejected him from the entire event.

    “It's like ranger school,” he said. “The only honorable way to get out is to graduate.”

    Exhaustion sets in
    Two short hours of sleep came and went in tents battered by midnight wind and rain.

    Then the group piled into the back of Stryker armored vehicles, arriving deep in the woods for a simulation mission to retrieve a downed pilot. Repelling yet another ambush, they hauled the wounded pilots and M-1 tank rounds for miles through the woods.

    As time wore on, exhaustion took a toll. Confusion and disorder increased.

    Hiking up and down steep, rain-soaked hills, Metheny and Master Sgt. Carl Parker took nearly 20 minutes trying to remember how many hills they'd crested and what time it was.

    Sitting in the rain, 28-year-old Sgt. Amanda Judd, originally from Saipan near Guam, said she'd deployed three times but still struggled to finish events such as carrying 40-pound water cans through steep forest hills that were more like cliffs in the middle of the night.

    “It's really hard. You're just moving all day, all night,” she said. “I'm so sore I can barely move.”

    But on Friday afternoon, with some covered in painful paintball welts from enemy fire, their training was finally complete.

    “It was just brutal, but it was rewarding,” Siler said. “You could see people's confidence building with each new challenge.”

    Judd was confident, despite her feeling like she'd been “hit by a bus.”

    “Most of us are decision makers,” said 1st Sgt. John Jennings, a veteran of Iraq, “so it reminds you how your decisions affect people, and makes sure you know you've still got the stuff.”

    Reporter Chris Kenning can be reached at (502) 582-4697.
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  • #2
    Re: Battle training preps Fort Knox soldiers for war on terror

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