PIÑON CANYON - Sweeping movements spanned miles of territory across southeastern Colorado last week and involved hundreds of vehicles and thousands of Fort Carson soldiers from the post's 1st Brigade Combat Team.
It's something that hasn't been seen for more than a decade at Fort Carson's Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site - preparation for full-scale warfare of a grand scope with clear lines of battle. These days, the Army calls it "decisive action." Before that, it has been called "high-intensity combat" and "maneuver warfare."
It means, simply, that wars like Iraq and Afghanistan, while not forgotten, are in the rearview mirror for planning purposes.
It's a serious change of pace, even for senior officers.
"That's what I did as a lieutenant," said Lt. Col Andy Saslav, who leads the brigade's 1st Battalion of the 38th Infantry Regiment. "I haven't done it since."
The Army has spent most of the past 14 years preparing to tangle with insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. Much of the drill focused on nation building. Commanders spent as much time learning to have tea with the locals and rebuild economies as they did training to employ their arsenal of weapons.
The new regimen is focused on conquering territory, smashing enemy positions and fighting to win rather than fighting to win hearts and minds.
The battles were fought in Atropia, a mock nation threatened by fictitious rival Donovia. Atropia won.
For the 1st Brigade, the exercise was a final test for a unit that has been built from the ground up in the past 18 months with new equipment, new leaders and new soldiers.
The test wasn't easy.
"It's more than they were expecting," said Lt. Col. Allan Selberg, who heads the brigade's 2nd Battalion of the 12th Artillery Regiment.
Until 2014, the 1st Brigade was a heavily armored unit, equipped with tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles. The brigade captured Saddam Hussein during the Iraq War and earned high praise for its counterinsurgency work in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Last year, though, the Army re-equipped the unit with eight-wheeled 18-ton Stryker vehicles, which are designed to haul troops over contested territory at freeway speeds.
The new gear came with new tactics, new soldiers and a tight calendar that left commanders until June to get the unit ready for war.
"We did it," said Col. David Hodne, the brigade's boss. "I'm really proud of that."
Strykers are the Army's medium-weight fighting force, with the mobility of armor and the versatility of infantry formations. Stryker units were designed to fill a hole in the Army's major combat operations but entered service in 2002, leaving them relegated to urban combat against insurgents.
Soldiers in the 1st Brigade are stretching Stryker tactics to a wider battlefield.
"This is the biggest scale I have seen or a lot of guys have seen," 1st Lt. Chene Rocha said.
The scale of the training is possible thanks to the size of Piñon Canyon, a 235,000-acre training site east of Trinidad that was used heavily during the Cold War but sparingly in recent years.
The Army allowed full-scale Stryker maneuvers after a lengthy environmental assessment that wrapped up last month.
Hodne said the new environmental agreement meant the soldiers had to take pains to protect significant sites on the training area, including dozens of areas containing culturally important artifacts from ancient Native American art to fossils.
But on open land, the Strykers were allowed to roam, with a single mock battle covering most of the site's 368 square miles.
Selberg said the massive operation allowed soldiers to see how the brigade functions as a whole.
"It opens their eyes," he said.
The brigade also joined forces with the post's 4th Combat Aviation Brigade, incorporating helicopters into the mock battle.
"It is cool to move big distances," 1st Lt. Langston Clarke said.
Big movements created big work for the brigade's supply troops and mechanics.
"We have blown more tires here," Capt. Patrick O'Connor said as his mechanics worked to get malfunctioning Strykers back on the road.
Sgt. Darnell Jackson found himself hauling 5-gallon cans of fuel to fill up thirsty Strykers amid a late-night mock fight.
"You can see the relief on their faces," Jackson said. "When they say thank you, that makes your day."
Some contend that the fighting was the easy part.
The brigade sent nearly 650 vehicles on a five-hour, 150-mile trek to the training site from Fort Carson. It was the largest convoy seen in southeastern Colorado in generations.
"Getting there and getting back are the hardest part," Clarke said.
Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240