Field artillery conducts live fire exercise

by Spc. Erick Petersen
GuardPost Staff Writer

The sky is as clear as a glass of ice-cold spring water. The sun is especially bright and seems determined to take the chill off the early morning spring day as a wispy breeze sweeps across the vast, empty field. The only sound comes from the slight rustle of pines and the occasional chirp from a lonesome sparrow. The tall, wild grass bends back and forth as the breeze seems to inhale and exhale its breath - first one way and then the other. All seems to be at peace at least for now.

 
Safety is always paramount as this soldier from the 1st Battalion 246th Field Artillery demonstrates by ensuring his artillery piece will fire accurately prior to firing live rounds. (Photo by Spec. Erick Peterson)
Suddenly, the roar of powerful diesel engines saturate the serene, picturesque silence. From a distance, they resemble wide, hump-back rocks with large wheels and a tail. Small, dark, ant-like creatures walking ahead seem to be leading the way as the strange machines effortlessly move into the field. One after the other they come, cresting the hill above the previously undisturbed field. As the machines draw nearer, they begin to take on a familiar shape.

The bulky looking apparitions are actually Humvees, and the tail-like silhouettes behind are 105 mm Howitzer cannons in tow. The ant-like creatures are heavily armed combat soldiers, ready to spring into action to protect their precious escorts.

Just as fast as the Humvees crest the hill, they take their positions side-by-side as gun crews scramble to make ready their "Howsers." In minutes, the ominous guns are in place and camouflage netting blends their deadly appearance with the natural surroundings.

Such was the scene as more than 300 members of 1st Battalion's 246th Field Artillery unit participated in a Live Fire exercise this past March at Fort Pickett, commencing a four-month regimen of training in preparation for AT 2000.

Lt. Col. Robert L. Tucker Jr., the battalion commander, said the recent exercise not only prepares his unit for Annual Training, but brings about many other fundamental benefits as well. "This type of training does a lot for our retention," Tucker said. "Soldiers get to do their job. They get to wear equipment they've been issued, and train with weapons systems they've learned in service schools."

For this and future exercises leading to AT 2000, Tucker explained that the battle situation is a continuation of scenarios used at Fort Leavenworth's War Fighter school last year. "Orangeland" forces were designated as the enemy, which had formed a two-layer defensive belt system. The mission of Tucker's 246th FA was to provide artillery fire in direct support of friendly infantry forces gearing up to attack the "Orangeland" forces.

"By continuing this situation, it is beneficial for our staff to write operations orders and annexes based on that scenario," Tucker said. He added that the unit always fires and trains from a scenario, either developed from higher headquarters, or one developed by his staff. Tucker noted that developing and executing Op orders is key to success in accomplishing the mission during IDT. He said every man in the unit, down to the lowest level, must understand the commander's intent. "Soldiers appreciate the fact that when they go to the field, they have a purpose," Tucker explained. "One of the worst things you can do is walk up to a soldier and he doesn't know who the enemy is."
Training starts by performing pre-combat checks on the equipment and then the tactical motor march commences. Men and equipment arrive at an R3P point, or Refuel, Rearm and Refit location. This is a designated point on the route's march, usually just a point on the road, where the unit stops before going to designated firing positions. "It's sort of like a drive-thru for supplies," said Tucker. Muzzle velocity measurements, using an M-90 Chronograph, are also performed on the guns once firing commences. Logs books are updated for each gun showing the number of rounds fired and charges, so that along with the muzzle velocity, accuracy of the weapon can be optimized.

 
Taking advantage of Ft. Pickett's outstanding firing ranges soldiers from 1st Battalion's 246th Field Artillery meet a major training highlight - sending live rounds down range at Ft. Pickett. (Photo by Spec. Erick Peterson)
"It's pretty exhilarating," said Spec. Aaron Akers, a member of Alpha Battery on Number Six gun. "I joined the Guard four years ago, and I wanted to be in artillery, and that's what I'm doing," he said. "Everybody's job is important regardless of what you're doing. You've got to keep a positive attitude and keep that 'team effort' frame of mind for safety and for getting the mission accomplished."

Akers' section chief, Martinsville native Staff Sgt. Eddie Hawks, noted that soldiers coming into the Guard are hungry for training. "For the last two years it seems we've been bombarded with young people who want to learn," he said. "The recruiters are bringing us good enthusiastic individuals, and it's fun to teach them," said the18-year veteran with a smile. "It's sort of like passing on the baton."

The Tactical Operations Center relays intelligence about enemy positions and targets to the Fire Direction Center. In turn, they pass the information to the guns, giving them their firing data, as well as what type of ammunition, projectiles and fuses to use.

Pfc. Nathan Pettway, who works with the FDC team, explained the superior technology of the systems used by the FDC really gives his unit the upper hand. "We're receiving our intel from a digital net and processing it with computerized equipment. It's almost like, if the guns didn't have us, they wouldn't be able to fire," he said.

According to Lt. Col. Tucker, a resident of Chase City, Va., there are a total of 18 guns in his unit. When they are in a typical training exercise, all 18 guns are used. Tucker explained that for this exercise only 12 guns were being used. "Safety is our main concern," he explained. "Section chiefs and their sections must go through a lengthy process of safety certification, including written work, a hands-on test, and then a section evaluation," he said. "They train to standard, and when all (sections) are certified, then all the guns will fire."

Veteran gunner Staff Sgt. Eddie Hawks echoed his commander. "Right now we're sort of at the 'crawl stage' before we start really walking with these guns," he said. "This is when the classes and the preparations start coming together. This is where we get all the kinks ironed out and get battle-ready before summer camp."

Tucker attributes the success of his unit to the superior leadership in the battalion. "We would not be able to enjoy the level of success we have without the quality of NCO leadership and the full-time staff we have today," he said.

"I wouldn't have it any other way," said 19-year-veteran gunner Sgt. Terry L. Massey. "'Layin' the Howser for Fire I love it!" he exclaimed. "I like the gun and the people I'm with. Wouldn't be in any other place."

Shadows slowly creep along the tree line as the sun begins to set. The last rumble of a round impacting its target echoes in the distance. The sound of rustling pines returns as the last of the Humvees ambles over the hill and disappears. Soldiers quietly talk among themselves and reflect on what they have learned.

In the field all is at peace again at least for now.