FORT IRWIN, Calif. • “Take cover,” a soldier yelled.
The first mock artillery round landed at 6:34 a.m. Wednesday. Nine more struck in the next minute. Each came in the direction of the tent housing the 1st Brigade Combat Team’s headquarters, though it remained intact.
“They’re testing us,” said Capt. Rogers Thweatt, the brigade’s battle captain, after the attack ended. “It’s obviously coming. The probing is getting more and more intense.”
Deep in the southern California desert, the 1st Brigade prepared for an upcoming overseas deployment by facing its own Army — a regiment of soldiers stationed at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif.
The center is where brigades — groups of 3,800 soldiers armed with tanks, mortars, hand-held drones, medical teams and mechanics — come to train one last time as a group before deploying overseas.
The Defense Department has not announced where it plans to send the Fort Carson brigade, one of four combat brigades in the post’s 4th Infantry Division.
But commanders acknowledge that the 1st Brigade is preparing for life after Afghanistan. Future battlefields could include massive armies, rivaling the Fort Carson brigade’s strength.
Most U.S. troops are slated to pull out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014, and the Army is getting ready in case it’s once again called to war. At the same time, commanders have tried to incorporate lessons learned by fighting a shadowy insurgent force whose most potent weapons have been hidden — if deadly — homemade bombs.
Simply put, the “Raider” brigade is preparing to face “the best practices of the world’s worst actors,” said Lt. Col. David Oeschger, Fort Irwin’s operations officer.
“It (those countries) could run the gamut, and they’re clearly in the media,” Oeschger said. “What it brings back to the center is the days of old.”
Sprawling, secure bases, such as the “Green Zone” in Iraq that offered a respite from the surrounding war, are absent at the National Training Center.
The rumble of tanks once again sounds across the barren landscape after becoming an afterthought in Afghanistan, while Paladin artillery vehicles offer a punch that can stretch for miles. Many of the brigade’s soldiers never set foot inside these vehicles until last spring, when they began training to deploy.
“I had the ammo, but I didn’t know where to put it,” said Sgt. Matt Carlson, a gunner aboard an M-2 Bradley Fighting Vehicle, a more versatile — if less powerful — version of a tank.
After gunnery sessions in the spring and summer, as well as live-fire exercises involving a few hundred troops at Fort Carson, the brigade came to Fort Irwin for a final training session.
Soldiers spent the first week at the California post prepping their machines for the field. Late last week, the soldiers went “in the box”— a term describing the range where soldiers fire lasers at each other and live ammunition at targets.
There, they did more of the same gunnery exercises — shooting live ammunition at targets across miles of occasional scrubs and dirt.
The early morning blasts Wednesday offered an overture to the brigade’s true test.
First, soldiers rolled out of their cots, some still in their sleeping bags when they hit the cool, dusty ground. Then they grasped their gas masks — bulky, claustrophobic devices meant to stem the effects of chemical warfare.
Those soldiers closest to the 3-foot-high berms lining the brigade’s headquarters flung themselves on the dirt, poking their heads over the top to spot incoming forces. The attack, carefully orchestrated by Fort Irwin’s 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, proved the only hiccup in the day’s training.
As the sun set, more than 100 of the brigade’s leaders gathered while a few officers positioned note cards across a diagram in the sand, laying out their coming battle with the regiment.
“What we get paid to do, other than train our forces, is be adaptable,” said Col. Joel Tyler, brigade commander.