Long before the 256th Infantry Brigade Combat Team arrived for deployment to the Middle East, they had forged a deep and habitual training partnership with First Army’s 177th Armored Brigade.
After the 256th was tasked to mobilize in support of U.S. Central Command, the 177th began interacting with the Louisiana Army National Guard unit as it prepared for the mission to come.
The leadership of the two units met face-to-face to assess training levels and personnel readiness. The 256th, nicknamed the Tiger Brigade, traveled to Camp Shelby, home to the 177th, numerous times throughout the last year to allow First Army observer/coach trainers to provide feedback on artillery lanes and crew drills. And the Louisiana unit returned to Mississippi again in October for premobilization training, another key opportunity for the units to interact in a kinetic field environment.
“By the time we got the 256th to mobilization, we had a good understanding of the unit, and we had established a rapport that enabled us to provide the feedback,” said Lt. Col. David O’Leary, commander of the 2-305th Field Artillery, the battalion taking lead on this partnership for the 177th. “That leads into those positive attitudes and the trust that we have their best interest in mind.”
The battalion’s command sergeant major, William Sturgeon, reiterated that observation. “They know we are here to help them and provide them with any resources that we can get them,” he said of the 256th. “The expertise we provide them comes from that good relationship with our partners – that’s the biggest deal.”
All this advance legwork allowed the shift to post-mobilization and the unit’s Culminating Training Exercise at Fort Bliss in November and December to be seamless.
The first half of the CTE focused on battalion-level and tactical-level training: logisticians running convoy lanes, troops reacting to improvised explosive devises, simulated vehicle recoveries. The brigade’s engineer battalion practiced breeching exercises and trained with explosives. The artillery battalion directed section- and platoon-level qualifications while the infantry battalion conducted gunnery ranges.
The second portion of the CTE focused on larger echelon collective training, with each of the brigade’s battalions rotating through staff training exercises, honing the processes needed to command and control forces and provide information to the commander for timely decisions. Finally, there was a combined live-fire exercise that incorporated small arms fire, engineer breaching lanes, artillery fire, and mortar fire.
All that doesn’t just come together. Designing a blueprint for the CTE – First Army’s specialty – is crucial.
“A successful exercise begins with the planning and it begins with understanding the unit’s mission,” explained O’Leary. “It continues with understanding what is the commander’s assessment of his or her training objectives, and it’s the planning that goes into resourcing that training, such as acquiring the land, the ammunition, and making sure the sequencing of events builds so that Soldiers can take skills learned in one event and apply to those to more complex training events later.”
Even more than all that, it takes the right attitude.
“The 256th – they’re outstanding and very coachable, a receptive audience and hungry to learn,” O’Leary said. “They take their mission very seriously. There’s a lot of experience in the unit. I believe they have the correct leaders in the right places. I’m very confident that the unit will be successful.”
But the foundation to every success can be summed up in one word: partnership.
“One of the biggest things that makes an exercise successful are the relationships,” Sturgeon said.
The 256th Commander, Col. Scott Desormeaux, echoed those sentiments.
“The Tiger Brigade has established an outstanding partnership with First Army throughout our deployment training cycle,” he said. “This partnership began with our premobilization through the brigade’s Culminating Training Exercise. We are appreciative of the opportunity to train with our active duty counterparts in support of our deployment.”
Those underlying relationships couldn’t have been more critical this year and with this deployment. As a partner, First Army had to be cognizant of all that the 256th and the Louisiana National Guard had juggled throughout 2020.
The unit had been part of supporting the longest emergency response effort in Louisiana history. Some 6,200 of the state’s Guardsmen had supported COVID efforts: administering more than 300,000 virus tests, packaging 21 million pounds of food, distributing 56 million personal protective equipment items, and completing some 4,500 PPE delivery missions of masks, gloves, ventilators, and Tyvek suits. Additionally, three devastating tornadoes in the spring required Guard response. And then in the fall the Louisiana Guard supported hurricane relief efforts for no less than seven named storms, including Laura, which became the tenth-strongest U.S. hurricane landfall on record and inflicted an estimated $14 billion in damages in Louisiana and Texas.
First Army’s OC/Ts were aware of all this as they began the 256th CTE in November. Their laser focus once the 256th arrived at Fort Bliss was to ensure the unit was finally able to focus entirely on the Middle East mission to come.
“One of the things that makes a good OC/T is being technically and tactically competent, and we have that,” O’Leary said. “These folks have demonstrated throughout their careers that they’ve been successful in their MOS and they’re able to impart that knowledge. And you have to have the ability to convince the unit through examples and repetitions that you want to see them get better. Those interpersonal skills, combined with the expertise, and understanding the nature of the National Guard and Army Reserve, makes you a successful OC/T.”
Sturgeon concurred. “Our OC/Ts bring anywhere from 12 to 24 years of knowledge and MOS-specific skill sets to our National Guard and Army Reserve partners,” he said. “That’s what we bring to the table, and we bring an understanding of what right looks like. We give them the resources they need to be successful.”
That all paid off in the end, Desormeaux noted.
“First Army has tirelessly supported the Tiger Brigade throughout multiple training evolutions,” he said. “This included numerous live fire exercises and mission readiness exercises. Our Culminating Training Exercise included the combined arms live fire, which put our enduring partnership with First Army on full display.”
This CTE came with the added challenge of taking place during a pandemic.
“The biggest issue that came about was having the facilities to house everybody to give them the proper space and ensure that if somebody does show symptoms or test positive that they have the right plan in place so that it does not spread,” Sturgeon said. “It was a difficult thing with this many people in one place but they did a fantastic job of managing the COVID situation.”
The 256th adhered to very strict COVID mitigation measures, from mask-wearing and hand-washing to social distancing and limiting interaction between different groups.
“There was a deliberate assessment of risk to mission as well as risk to force,” said O’Leary. “The commander did his best to keep as many Soldiers as he could free from COVID, which allowed him to meet his training objectives.”
One specific area of growth O’Leary observed during the event involved the maturation of staff personnel.
“One thing that I saw during the CTE was a lot of young Soldiers who had recently been put into a staff position and they really hadn’t trained as a staff,” he said. “What I saw at both the brigade and battalion level was increased confidence that they could execute those jobs. There was greater staff integration and they began to work better as an organization and develop a shared understanding for their commander. You could see over the course of several days how they were able to receive, process, and share information, and it grew considerably.”
With that, the Soldiers of the 256th will deploy in support of combatant commander requirements, answering their nation’s call.