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Metro Guardsmen battle heat, live fire in war training

John L. Russell
Special to the Detroit News

Waters — PFC Brandon Haeger is trained to battle enemies, but on this day he was fighting heat, dust, fatigue and live ammo rounds.

The Michigan Air National Guard member from Garden City was hiking through the scrub growth and sandy, loose soil of the Air Gunnery Range in Otsego County as part of the Operation Northern Strike military exercises.

It is hot — more than 80 degrees in blazing sun — and dusty and muggy. This is a live-fire exercise from the air and the ground and very real.

“I’ve wanted to be in the Guard since I was a little kid,” Haeger said. “The (training) experience is stimulating.”

Each of the 115 soldiers from the ‘A’ Company, 1st Battalion, 125th Infantry Regiment from the Detroit Light Armory — 95 of them from the Metro area — involved in the training wears a combat vest weighing around 50 pounds and includes ammunition, water and a first-aid kit. An advanced combat helmet provides head cover and adds another three pounds. The M4 carbine they carry adds 71/2 pounds.

Other soldiers carry machine guns weighing an additional 25 pounds instead of M4s.

The Detroit-area soldiers are among 3,000 from 20 states as well as Latvia, Poland, Australia and Canada who are training for the fourth year in a row at Camp Grayling. Other training is taking place through Friday at the Alpena Training Center and a rock quarry in Rogers City and ends Friday.

The exercise last week integrated ground soldiers with air attacks and live fire. Many of the weapons used — such as mortars, artillery and rotary and fixed-wing aircraft — are the same that would be used in any real battles.

The Michigan National Guard leads the exercise from the Camp Grayling Joint Maneuver Training Center, a sprawling four-season facility covering 147,000 acres over three counties. The center features state-of-the-art ranges and modern support facilities, making it the largest National Guard training center in the United States.

“This exercise is teaching us to move with a bigger element of troops, and has been great,” said Haeger, who joined the National Guard a year ago. “It’s more involved than last year.”

Sgt. First Class Wilson Tang, 47, of Clinton Township has been in the Guard for 29 years and has been through numerous training exercises.

“Things changed after Sept. 11th, 2001,” he said. “Exercises were not this intense.”

Challenging exercises

Troops are airlifted to a drop zone aboard Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters and work their way onto the open range, where continual withering fire from automatic rifles and machine guns chew up the targets as the soldiers advance over the uneven ground.

Joint terminal attack controllers, made up of Detroit-area and Latvian troops, coordinate air units to keep them from accidentally shooting each other.

“This exercise was hard, but our guys (in the 125th) are pretty motivated,” Tang said. “It was hot, but that night we flew back to Alpena, where we had a hot shower, a roof over our head, and a cot to sleep on. We were fine.”

Tang explained the excitement for the new troops, infantry who had never experienced live-fire exercises.

“Some of our guys had never even flown in a helicopter,” he explained. “It was definitely an eye-opener for the younger guys. The exercise was a huge asset for us.”

The Air Gunnery Range is a hot and dirty place, where foreign object debris on the barren landscape provides yet another dimension to the training.

The possibility of finding unexploded ordinance from live-fire aircraft activity is real and can be deadly if detonated accidentally. The soldiers on the ground have a hard day ahead of them.

The rattle of weapons fire reverberates across the field as squads of soldiers take turns advancing on their target, finding cover in the open field, unleashing fire toward the target.

Apache helicopters from the 104th Armed Reconnaissance Battalion of the Pennsylvania National Guard strafe the field and fire rockets, followed by attacking A-10 Thunderbolt war planes from the 163rd Fighter Squadron of the Indiana Air National Guard.

Artillery strikes from 155 mm howitzers blast the southern end of the range, along with the thumping concussions of mortar rounds.

The heat and humidity take its toll on some soldiers, who are treated for heat-related exhaustion, while others return to the base area of operations for water and shade before moving on to the next exercise.

Next step

Cpt. Jeremiah Bryant, 28, of Ypsilanti, joined the guard 10 years ago, as he searched for something that would challenge and stimulate him.

“I was looking for the next step, but didn’t want to go to college immediately. The National Guard has benefits that are a smart deal.”

As commander of Charlie company of the 125th Infantry, “we’ve never experienced something on this scale,” Bryant said of Operation Northern Strike. “It was absolutely a good exercise, allowing us to integrate activities from command level to infantry in the field. It was a great experience.”

Bryant served a year in Afghanistan, and saw this exercise as a chance for the troops to experience combat activity as much as he experienced in a war zone.

“Northern Strike allows us to train the way we fight,” said Lt. Col Matthew Trumble, an exercise director and Michigan Air National Guard officer. “We integrate combat troops with air power to accomplish their objectives. The exercise is similar to situations the U.S. military has been involved in within the recent past.”

Major Justin Bierens of Belmont, who is with the Michigan National Guard’s 63rd Troop Command and a senior member of the Operation Northern Strike planning staff said this year’s training uses troops from different backgrounds.

“We need to prepare for training with foreign troops so we can integrate easily if or when we are needed overseas,” he said.

“It’s been evolving each year, and very successful each year as we add more events.”

John Russell is a freelance photographer and writer in Traverse City. He can be reached at TCphoto@aol.com