The scene could be from any overseas base. A Humvee drives up to a heavily guarded entry point. It weaves between concrete barriers and sandbags while being watched from a guard tower by an Airman standing behind a heavy machine gun.
Inside the walls, tents are neatly laid out with a work section on one side and a living section on the other. A line of three Humvees sits in the wide gravel lot, while security Airmen talk and eat Meals Ready to Eat. An M-249 machine gun mounted atop their vehicles is ready for the next convoy. The only signs that this base is on the Massachusetts Military Reservation are the lush green trees visible over the outer walls.
Airmen from the 102nd Security Forces Squadron based at Otis Air National Guard Base, along with Airmen from the 104th Security Forces Squadron, 104th Services Squadron, 267th Combat Communications Squadron, 202nd Weather Flight and elements of the 3rd Battalion, 126th Aviation Regiment and the Army Aviation Support Facility #1 all came to Tactical Training Base Kelley on June 9, 2009 for three days and two nights of realistic joint force training.
The base is named after Sgt. Michael J. Kelley, a Massachusetts Army National Guardsman killed in Afghanistan in 2005. It allows units to experience a deployed environment and expose their Airmen and Soldiers to situations that they may face on a real world mission.
Inside the command post tent, Lt. Col. Christopher Hamilton, commander, 102nd Security Forces Squadron, talks with Tech. Sgt. Casey Walsh, a convoy troop commander. Hamilton goes over the mission briefing for Walsh’s next convoy. Minutes later, Walsh is outside in the gravel lot, huddled over a map on the hood of a humvee, relaying the plan for today’s mission to his Airmen.
What was originally planned as an annual security forces training exercise has grown into a multi-unit and multi-service exercise. The 202nd Weather Flight is on hand to keep leaders up to date with the constantly changing weather conditions. The 267th Combat Communications Squadron has setup a complete communications package, supporting all the units on the base. Volunteers from the 102nd Intelligence Wing are taking part as role players. The roles include acting as villagers trying to sell fruit at the front gate and heavily armed terrorists with actual weapons. Army Aviation Support Facility #1 and Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion, 126th Aviation Regiment provided air support with UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters.
Tech. Sgt. Chris Fiore, an Airman assigned to the 267th CBCS, commented on how participating in the exercise benefitted his unit, “We’ve got a lot of new Airmen and this is great training. Some of us who have deployed a number of times can pass on our knowledge in an environment that’s like what you see overseas. The stress level goes up, there’s a real sense of urgency, and it’s real easy to get into the role here.”
Three Humvees roll down the dirt road, spaced 20 yards apart on a “route reconnaissance” convoy mission. The Airmen’s eyes are constantly scanning the brush alongside the road for anything unusual. The lead vehicle turns left, onto a heavily wooded road, suddenly there are two vehicles blocking the way ahead. All three Humvees quickly move into position beside each other. Suddenly there is the “crack, crack, crack” sound of gunshots from the woods to the right. The turret gunners shout, “contact right!” then swing their turrets around and open fire. Blank bullet casings tumble onto the roofs of the humvees and the Airmen flow out of the doors to take a defensive position.
Each situation during this exercise tests the experience and ingenuity of the Airmen and there is no right answer for every situation. Master Sgt. Marc Vercellone, 102nd SFS, stated that squad leaders in particular would benefit from the training. “A squad leader has to be able to provide guidance and advice to people in his squad regardless of whether it’s technical or tactical. In a day-to-day environment we’re not always making quick decisions and trying to analyze what the immediate outcome and consequences our decisions will be. It isn’t as imperative but when you’re in a situation like this, you have to think quickly. It’s better to learn how to do it in a training environment than have to learn how to do it when the bullets are flying for real,” said Vercellone.
Over the course of the exercise the situations vary widely. The missions include convoy and patrol operations dealing with the local populace including angry protestors throwing vegetables, quick reaction force and personnel recovery training.
One phrase that is not often heard during this exercise is “simulated.” Vercellone noted, “I wanted to provide the most realistic environment for the (Guardsmen) to (train) in. I’m a big fan of immersion training. It’s one thing to practice loading a helicopter while it’s sitting on the ramp, but when there’s rotor-wash and blades spinning, people moving around the landing zone, you have to get the bird in and out quick. You can’t really create that sense of urgency and the distraction that goes with it unless you’re actually doing it that way.”
Vercellone and the other units involved commented that they hoped to grow this training and expand it in the future to take advantage of the great facilities that Camp Edwards has to offer. With the 102nd Security Forces Squadron deploying more than 40 Airmen in the coming year, it’s training that will not go unused.