Even as the length of combat tours shrinks and the American role in Afghanistan and Iraq winds down, a massive push is under way at Fort Carson to get soldiers ready for war.
More than 5,000 soldiers spent nearly two weeks this month firing machine guns, howitzers and helicopter-mounted cannons on training ranges, preparing for whatever they may face in Afghanistan next year. The huge exercise involves soldiers from several Fort Carson units and troops from a helicopter unit based in Hawaii.
They spent long days in drills involving scenarios that are all too common in the valleys of Afghanistan — outnumbered American forces taking on waves of determined fighters, enemies ambushing U.S. convoys, and medics in helicopters whisking wounded troops from the battlefield.
“It gives you that spine-tingling feeling,” said 1st Lt. Andrew Patterson of the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division.
The goal of the elaborate training missions is to give combat newcomers like Patterson a chance to lean on the experience of seasoned veterans before going to war.
The 4th Brigade has plenty of veterans. The 3,500-soldier unit, the largest formation in training now at Fort Carson, has served twice in Iraq and once in Afghanistan since 2004.
Because the unit has seen so much combat, its soldiers have gotten one of the longest breaks away from the war. They came home from Afghanistan in the spring of 2010 and won’t head back until next spring — a break of nearly two years that doubles the time the brigade spent at home between past deployments.
“It was nice,” said Lt. Col Jim Craft, a battalion commander in the brigade who has seen his troops reconnect with family members and rebuild their lives at home during the past year.
More than half the soldiers in the unit have been overseas with the brigade before and the bulk have been to war during their time in the Army.
The longer breaks, which the Pentagon says will become common for troops, were made possible by the American pullout in Iraq and the decrease in troop commitments to Afghanistan.
The last American combat troops are scheduled to leave Iraq by Jan. 1 and the level of troops in Afghanistan is beginning to drop as commanders prepare to leave that country by 2014.
Many of the soldiers training at Fort Carson will have a shorter tour overseas than past deployments. The Pentagon announced this month that most Army brigades heading for war after April will spend nine months overseas rather than a year or more in combat.
The shorter tours and the peace that’s expected in a few years weren’t hot topics of conversation during training last week, though.
“You just don’t think about it,” said Sgt. Jeff Ertley as he readied a 105mm howitzer to blast mock insurgent targets.
Instead, soldiers are thinking about the dangers they’ll face in Afghanistan, like roadside bombs, ambushes.
“You don’t look at it like everything is dying down over there, because you never know what is going to happen,” said Sgt. 1st Class Andrew Simer. “We know we have got a job to do and you just focus on being a soldier.”
That focus includes having soldiers from a number of units work together the way they will in Afghan combat. For helicopter crews flying on Fort Carson last week that means learning how to support ground troops while flying in the thin air of high altitudes amid mountains and valleys.
“This is the best terrain we could ever experience for flying in Afghanistan,” said Chief Warrant Officer Ben Ingraham, a Black Hawk helicopter pilot with the 25th Infantry Division, which is sending its aviation brigade from Hawaii to Colorado Springs to train.
The 25th division pilots will fly alongside crews from Fort Carson’s 1st Battalion of the 2nd Aviation Regiment when they head to war next year.
The Fort Carson battalion’s Command Sgt. Maj. Tim Johnson said the intense training will prepare pilots to deal with dangers like the rocket attack earlier this month that downed a transport helicopter carrying special operations troops. That crash claimed 38 lives.
“The war’s not over,” Johnson said. “It’s a dangerous environment over there.”
It’s dangerous enough that troops who aren’t in combat jobs must be ready to fend off attacks.
Plumbers, carpenters and masons of Fort Carson’s 52nd Engineer Battalion worked last week to blast targets with truck-mounted machine guns during an exercise that simulated an ambush of their convoy.
The engineers got help from the sky as Apache attack helicopters from the Fort Carson battalion swooped in to blast targets.
“I’ve never had training like this,” said Spc. Clarence Wolfe, a carpenter who has been in the Army more than six years. “It’s everything incorporated into one exercise.”
The sounds of combat unleashed a flood of memories for veterans on the training ranges.
“Hearing those rounds go off got me going,” said Spc. Jonathan Ullery of the 4th brigade. “It would sound just like this” in the war zone.
Ullery and his comrades were part of an exercise that simulated hundreds of insurgents trying to storm an American outpost.
The targets were plastic and didn’t shoot back, but the American bullets were real.
“You have to have your head in the game,” said Spc. Ryan Jackson, who helped hit the targets with mortar fire.
The brigade’s troops will undergo even more intense training next month. In September they’ll head to Louisiana for a mock war as a graduation exercise. Sometime in spring they’ll head to Afghanistan.
Many say their heads are already overseas.
Sgt. Julian Sample, with 4th brigade, said he’s ready to head to war now.
“If you don’t plan for the long haul, you’re going to be hurting,” he said.
But he knows that going to war, even if the tour is down to nine months, has a cost on the home front.
“My oldest boy is 5,” Sample said. “I’ve seen him now two and a half years — that’s total time.”