By Staff Sgt. Jacob Barreiro
19th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
Somewhere amidst the 600,000 acres of the Kisatchie National Forest, which spans several districts and parishes in Louisiana, Airmen and Soldiers are working around the clock, conducting contingency response training to increase their combat readiness, expeditionary skills, and joint effectiveness.
The Green Flag exercise, held at the Joint Readiness Training Center, Ft. Polk, La., is intended to assess and certify the combat readiness of Air Force strategic airlift, contingency, and support forces in a simulated expeditionary environment. In addition to exercising the joint capability of rapidly introducing forces into hostile environments to conduct operations it provides Airmen with the opportunity to develop refinements to processes and procedures that can potentially enhance the effectiveness of real-world operations.
The exercise is part of an on-going training regimen at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Ft. Polk, La., and the Airmen of the 34th Combat Training Squadron, part of the 19th Airlift Wing at Little Rock Air Force Base, make monthly trips to Ft. Polk to play their important role in this training.
Although they are only a small part of a large joint team gathered for the exercise, Lt. Col. Drey Menard, 34th CTS commander, said the importance of his squadron’s mission at the JRTC isn’t lost on him. The 34th CTS’s primary duty in the exercises at Ft. Polk is to train, said Menard. Constant demands for training make the JRTC exercises a commodity, and members of his unit can expect to spend 10 days or more, 10 times a year, at Ft. Polk participating in the simulated deployment exercises, said Menard.
“Working in this unit, you can expect to spend almost four months out of every year at Ft. Polk,” he said. “We’ll finish up this exercise later in the month, and be back (to Ft. Polk) for the next one at the beginning of November.”
The 34th CTS provides training and certification for air crew at the exercise, but also is responsible for having observers, coaches and trainers with “boots on the ground,” during the exercise, to evaluate the performance of Airmen on the ground. Typical deployment exercises at the base are scaled to be as realistic as possible and include situations that might arise in real-world deployments, such as paratroopers jumping from planes to advance teams sleeping in tents or holes in the ground before they’re able to establish hard facilities.
While service members are no strangers to exercises of every stripe, Green Flag Little Rock is set apart by the level of realism and detail. Bart Westfall, of the 34th CTS and contractor player during the exercise, said while the scenarios and exercises are simulated, they are as close to the real thing as possible.
Details and realism are apparent in “the Box,” the area that is “in play” during the exercise. The Box is a simulated deployed area located in the Kisatchie National Forest, specially built to imitate real-world deployment zones. The Box has towns and villages fabricated to resemble actual villages located in Southwest Asia. Morethan 17 “tribes” live in the Box during the exercise, and the JRTC employs more than 100 foreign nationals to play foreign villagers.
Among the towns and cities in the Box is Dara Lam, a sizeable town with gas stations, a restaurant, a hotel and other commodities. Everything is in play in the Box, the restaurant in Dara Lam actually serves coffee and food, and the town’s residents interact with the service members they come into contact with.
“The Box is designed to be as realistic as possible,” said Westfall. “There can be as many as 5,000 soldiers out there in training at once; it can be really chaotic.”
Menard, who worked as the Director of Mobility Forces during the exercise, said anticipating and overcoming chaos is the standard for his unit. The exercise is a “free-play” exercise, which means events are unscripted and subject to change at any moment. The players have no clue what’s going to happen before it happens and are encouraged to learn from their mistakes.
“This exercise is going to start and it’s going to end,” said Menard to his team before the exercise began. “We’re not going to break any people, and we’re not going to bend any metal. Everything we do in the middle is going to be a lesson learned. I want to see safe execution of the mission and a good collection of lessons learned at the end.”
The list of lessons learned, while always important, may be more so for this exercise because Menard, who has been participating in these exercises since June 2010, said the October exercise will be the largest one the JRTC has done in nearly two years.
While some exercises at the JRTC involve simulated deployments to areas with an already established U.S. presence, but not this one. The simulation for this deployment was based on building a base from scratch. Menard added that by its very nature an exercise of this magnitude takes a lot of effort.
For example, the Aeromedical Evacuation teams evacuated greater amounts of simulated injury/casualties every day. Also, while last September’s JRTC exercise involved 200 personnel parachuting into the Box, this one included more than 600 jumpers. Planning and executing the jump is always a harrowing and complicated job, but coordinating a jump as large as this requires special attention.
“This is the biggest jump we’ve done out here in a long time,” said Menard.
Among the AMC Airmen playing their part in this massive exercise was a team of observers, coaches, and trainers from various AMC bases dedicated to watching, evaluating and instructing Air Force members during the exercise.
Menard said exercises of this magnitude are challenging, but provide abundant opportunities for training, learning and enhancing joint force capabilities for the U.S. military, which is what joint training exercises are all about.
“From Army guys on the ground, who may have been to theater already, this puts them in a new role,” said Menard. “Army and Air Force people are challenged with jobs they’ve never had before. For MAF guys, our co-pilots need training before they deploy. We’re really proud of the ones that come in and say they feel much better prepared for their deployments. It’s better to feel pain and pressure here so downrange you survive and come home. It’s important for an exercise on this scale to learn the lessons we learn. It’s better to learn some things now than in theater.”