Neither the largest winter snowstorm in decades nor a global pandemic could stop Nebraska’s “Pike Brigade” from completing an important training event, Jan. 26-Feb. 14, 2021, in Fort Riley, Kansas.
Nearly 200 Soldiers from the Nebraska Army National Guard’s Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 67th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade and the 234th Signal Company attended a three-week warfighter exercise that tested their ability to operate in a simulated combat environment.
The main body convoy departed Lincoln Jan. 26, 2021, following the largest winter snowstorm to hit the city in decades, and arrived safely at Fort Riley, Kansas, for the exercise. Most of the Soldiers would work 12-hour shifts day and night in a tented tactical operations center in mostly frigid weather, working alongside representatives from the 1st Infantry Division.
“The goal is to become a closer-knit, more effective and more efficient staff,” said Sgt. Maj. Jason Sharp, senior area operations noncommissioned officer who served as the night-shift operations sergeant major. “It’s a training requirement, but apart from that, it’s to learn how to work together as a staff, how to conduct mission command, and work through the staff functions that we just can’t simulate back home.”
While the brigade’s main mission was to support the 1st Infantry Division, the exercise allowed the brigade to validate their own training requirements, which was of extra significance to the 67th MEB Soldiers as they prepare for an upcoming overseas deployment.
A sheriff’s deputy on the civilian side, Sharp admitted being away from work and family for an extended period so soon before a deployment was a little frustrating, but he said the training was worth it because it taught the unit how to communicate, collaborate, conduct mission planning, assessments, and track and share information – all things important for the upcoming mission.
“Even though it’s not a direct correlation with what we’re going to do on the deployment, it still definitely prepares the staff for anything we might encounter,” he said.
Spc. Antonio Hoover, an intelligence analyst, said he enjoyed his first warfighter experience and thought it was excellent training because of the hands-on nature, moving beyond just passing reports between teammates.
“It really stresses the importance of communicating not just with everybody in our unit but also with the units above and below us, to make sure that everybody who needs to know certain things gets it,” he said.
Hoover said he is excited for the unit’s upcoming deployment and he thought the warfighter training was an opportunity to experience new roles and to learn from peers.
“We have a lot of new folks, and I think it’s important that we try to get that experience, learn how we communicate back and forth, how everybody works, our strengths and weaknesses, and how we can develop together as a team,” Hoover said. “Overall, day-to-day, you do as much as you can and learn as much as you can.”
For Sharp – who has participated in three other warfighter exercises – one of the main takeaways from this training came from network connectivity challenges, which reinforced the importance of knowing how to do things “the old school way.”
“Analog systems, using the old maps and markers, having your status boards updated by hand,” he said. “I think the staff is learning that very important aspect, that you can’t always rely on modern technology because it can fail, and having that backup.”
While the connectivity issues created unique learning opportunities for brigade headquarters Soldiers, they also provided valuable training opportunities for the 234th Signal Company.
“The 234th is supporting the 67th MEB in their communications,” said 1st Sgt. Patrick Marick, company first sergeant. “We are their communications company so if they have any radio requests, or problems with their network, we support that.”
Marick said working with the 1st Infantry Division systems during the exercise was interesting because they had to learn how to communicate across different types of equipment that wasn’t always compatible between the two organizations.
“We troubleshoot it to the best our abilities,” Marick said. “If we can’t or it’s totally broke, we try to replace it if we have extra. That is why we have redundancy within our systems, so if one can’t get fixed we have another system that backs it up.”
Having an entire brigade with thousands of Soldiers going through a warfighter training exercise is rarely feasible, so a response cell simulates the subordinate units enabling the brigade headquarters to focus on staff functions.
“The response cell acts as the subordinate battalions to the MEB,” said Col. Todd Stevens, former brigade commander and response cell lead. “In this exercise the MEB has seven different battalion headquarters assigned to it. There are fifteen of us working days and fifteen at night that simulate those headquarters.”
Operating out of Fort Riley’s Mission Training Complex, the response cell is a hive of activity during the exercise. Dozens of observers, coaches, trainers and simulation operators work round-the-clock to present the brigade and division headquarters staffs with a wide array of challenges in the fictional exercise scenario.
But not every Soldier at the training participated in the simulated wargame events. The headquarters section of the unit stayed nearby at the Funston barracks on Fort Riley to provide real-world logistical and life support for the Soldiers in the exercise.
“Back at HHC we are doing as much as possible so the unit downrange can maintain the fight and not worry about beds, bullets or beans,” said Capt. Roger Yant, company commander. “We make sure everything is stocked and working, and we get supplies from here to there.”
With the current COVID-19 environment another focus for the headquarters staff was the health and safety of Soldiers. Soldiers consistently wore proper face masks, sanitized workstations regularly, conducted temperature checks twice daily and completed rapid COVID-19 tests every three days. There were zero positive COVID-19 tests amongst Nebraska’s Soldiers for the entirety of the exercise.
While the exercise called for long days and intense focus, the Soldiers took a single day of rest for the sake of morale, welfare and recreation Feb. 7, for a Super Bowl Sunday celebration that included hotdogs, hamburgers, drinks, games and access to view the big game on two large screen televisions. Soldiers also had multiple opportunities to attend religious services while in the field.
Morale and attitudes remained positive the entire exercise and many Soldiers were recognized for their efforts with coins from both 1st Infantry Division commanders and visiting Nebraska National Guard commanders.
At the conclusion of the exercise on Feb. 10, the 67th MEB quickly disassembled the portable shelters of the TOC, prepared for the convoy back to Lincoln the following morning, and attended after action reviews with evaluators.
At the final AAR, the Nebraska Soldiers were told they “knocked it out of the park on this,” exercise, identified themselves as a learning organization and maintained a positive attitude the entire time – something the evaluators said they don’t see often.
The unit arrived safety back to Lincoln Feb. 11 just as the area was bracing for record-setting subzero cold temperatures, and immediately pivoted to pre-deployment operations.