National Guard combat force deploys for intensive training

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF
khughes@starhq.com

   Tennessee's largest National Guard combat force, the 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment, along with 2,500 support troops -- including the 80th Troop Command from Elizabethton -- have been packing up and are on their way to three weeks of intense training and evaluation in the Mojave Desert.
   The training session at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, Calif., kicks off Saturday and continues through June 23 with 5,000 soldiers of the 278th and support troops from 15 states. The 278th, headquartered in Knoxville, has units stretching from Erwin to Bristol to Jackson. It is the only Armored Cavalry Regiment in the National Guard and one of only two in the United States.
   Brig. Gen. Gus Hargett, Tennessee's assistant adjutant general and commander of the Army National Guard, said the training mission "is without doubt the closest thing to combat ever devised. It is literally a full-scale modern battlefield with laser receivers recording 'kills' instead of bullets.
   "Our soldiers must move, shoot and communicate while battling both a resident force that knows every hill and valley, and also contend with the extremely harsh conditions of the Mojave Desert," which reaches summer temperatures over 100 degrees.
   More than 2,100 pieces of equipment including the M1 Abrams main battle tanks, M3 Bradley Fighting Vehicles, combat-equipped "Humm-V's" and transports, and UH60 Blackhawk helicopters are being shipped to California by more than 575 rail cars. Equipment is being sent from Holston Army Ammunition Plant in Kingsport, Oak Ridge and Paris, Tenn.; Fort Campbell and Fort Knox, Ky.; and Camp Shelby, Miss.
   Advance detachments from Tennessee began arriving at the National Training Center May 20, with the main body leaving Tennessee June 1-2. Remaining personnel with the 278th in Erwin will say their good-byes to family members on Friday.
   1st Sgt. William LaForce of the 278th in Erwin said the training mission is "something we've been scheduled for and been training up for, for the last five years.
   "The first people from this area actually are currently on site right now, unloading the equipment that was shipped by rail. They started that endeavor Monday morning (May 20)," LaForce said, at "Yermo," a Marine Corps railhead. There is no railroad service onto the training center, affectionately dubbed the National "Tricycle" Center.
   "We used to call it the "Testing" center, but they said, "No, no, no. It's not a test. You come to train. Everything we do we learn from it, either good or bad," LaForce said. "If we do bad stuff, we learn not to do it again, hopefully."
   LaForce said the 278th will be practicing what they normally would do should they be deployed to a theater.
   "We provide security and 'intel' for the main attack group. We're not part of those folks, we just do the security for them. We keep the bad guys off of them," the 1st Sergeant said.
   "We go out and scout and analyze everything that's in front of us. We go find the bad guys, try to assess their strengths and weaknesses, where they are, what their trends are, how well they're equipped, and then we just provide a good secure avenue of approach for the main fighting force.
   "Once the main fighting force goes in there and kills all of the bad guys, they will come out of combat and will be regrouped, regenerated and whatever else they need, and we'll go in there and assume whatever territories, towns, cities, railways -- whatever that they've left behind -- and we'll prepare for our follow-on mission. If we have to go do it again, that's what we do," he said.
   There are only two Armored Cavalry Regiments in the Army inventory: The 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment which resides in Fort Carson, Colo., and is on active duty; and the 278th, which is "in hold" in Tennessee.
   The 80th Troop Command of Elizabethton, which was deployed during Desert Storm, is the 278th's indirect support for maintenance and logistics endeavors.
   "They do everything from repair vehicles to water treatment and delivery, fuel delivery, vehicle transportation. They have a very different mission than we do," 1st Sgt. LaForce said. "They're basically a non-combat type of support function. They're the people that haul stuff, move stuff, repair stuff.
   "They will be supporting us and they will be internally evaluated and graded. And because those folks have practiced their wares on the real battlefield, we feel real confident we've got the best support available," LaForce said.
   "It takes a lot of support to keep us sustained for 72 hours. They're always pushing supplies and vehicles and equipment forward, and we're sending back either bad guys, or wounded good guys or broken equipment. If we're doing our job right, we're covering them up with prisoners, like you saw in Desert Storm."
   The training mission takes in personnel ranging from military intelligence "to what we affectionately call 'mess kit-repair folks,'" LaForce said.
   "If you look at the total amount of folks that are in an Army Cav regiment and what we're supposed to do, if we're doing our job even halfway right, we're generating a lot of work for the support folks."
   Daily reports and photographs from the National Training Center will begin June 1 and will continue throughout the exercise. They can be accessed at www.tnmilitary.org.