Arrival Sets Tone for Civic Leaders' Fort Bliss Visit
By Terri Lukach
American Forces Press Service
FORT BLISS, Texas, May 2, 2005 The Joint Civilian Orientation Conference's introduction to Fort Bliss on April 29 was highly symbolic of the nature and mission of the installation they were about to visit - and one the conference participants will never forget.
Bill Jasper, a participant in the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference, fires the rocket-propelled grenade simulator at Fort Bliss, Texas, April 29. The JCOC is a weeklong, multi-service orientation program hosted by the secretary of defense to give civilian public opinion leaders a better knowledge of national defense issues. Photo by Tech. Sgt. Scott F. Reed, USAF
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
It began as the Air Force C-17 Globemaster III transporting the group began its approach into El Paso. The JCOC participants began to prepare for another ordinary landing at the next stop on their weeklong tour of U.S. military installations when the cabin of the C-17 suddenly went dark. A row of red lights lining the upper walls began to strobe, and the previously tranquil flight turned into a knuckle-gripping ride, as the pilot plunged the plane into a high-speed spiral dive and executed a fully manual landing.
With engines roaring and the sparse accommodations rattling from speed and thrust, the passengers quickly realized they were in the midst of a combat assault landing of the type U.S. forces used when landing at Baghdad airport at the height of hostilities.
Considering that training and deploying combat and combat support units and conducting support and stability operations in wartime are two of Fort Bliss's primary missions, the landing seemed quite appropriate. Welcome to the Army.
But the landing wasn't the only surprise in store for the JCOC. Stepping out of the plane and onto the stairway that led to the tarmac, the civic leaders were greeted by the famous 62nd U.S. Army Brass Band and walked down a red carpet lined with dignitaries waiting to welcome them. In the distance, three men in kilts sounded bagpipes playing ancient Scottish war songs.
A hero's welcome -- again nothing new for Fort Bliss, which serves as a main embarkation and demobilization point for individuals and units coming and going to Iraq. Since the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom, more than 60,000 troops of all services have either trained at Fort Bliss before deploying, or passed through the base on their way back to private life.
"So this is what it feels like to come home to post," one of the participants remarked.
The experiences were just the beginning of the JCOC's introduction to Army life, and especially Army life in the American Southwest.
Over a backyard dinner at the home of Fort Bliss's commanding general, Maj. Gen. Michael A. Vane, the JCOC participants were served a buffet of typical Southwest cuisine, and entertained by flamenco and mariachi dancers.
Of course, dinner and dancers at the home of the commanding general is not part of a typical homecoming, but then the JCOC is not a typical group.
Begun in 1948, the JCOC is a weeklong, multiservice orientation program for civilian leaders. The program is a favorite of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who spoke to the group over a Pentagon breakfast on April 25, the day the JCOC journey began to stateside bases. The current conference is the 69th since 1948.
Dinner ended with a live presentation of Lee Greenwood's famous song "God Bless the USA" and some parting comments from Vane, who thanked the JCOC "for all you do to support the military and especially the Army in the global war on terror."
The next morning, JCOC participants began their tour of Fort Bliss. First stop: Patriot Air and Missile Defense.
The Patriot battalion at Fort Bliss was the first to be armed with Patriot Advanced Capability-3 missiles - new "hit-to-kill" technology that holds 16 missiles rather than the four held by the older version. In 2001, a lighter, quicker version of the system, the "Patriot Light" debuted at Fort Bliss.
Designed in keeping with the military's transformation toward lighter and more lethal forces, the Patriot Light was built to fit on a heavy Humvee. It is not only more maneuverable, efficient, faster and cheaper to deploy, but allows for a rapid response when little time is available for a massive buildup of forces.
After a quick briefing, the JCOC was bused out to Patriot Park, home of the Army's Air Defense Center, to see and learn about the PAC-3 and its capabilities. In addition to U.S. forces, the forces of 28 allied nations have been trained on the Patriot system at Fort Bliss.
The Patriot is capable of engaging a wide variety of weapons, in addition to tactical ballistic missiles. "If it flies, it dies," was the way one briefer put it. The equipment is maintained 24 hours a day.
JCOC participants inspected the basic parts of the Patriot system: the antenna mast, the PAC-3 radar, the phased-array radar, the Patriot launching station, and - the fun part - the PCROFT, or Patriot Conduct of Fire Trainer. "That's where you can actually get in the system and kill something," the PCROFT instructor said.
And that's exactly what the JCOC did. Inside the PCROFT, the group learned how to interpret the signs and signals of an incoming weapon; identify it as friendly, hostile or unknown; track it; determine its intent; lock on to it; and fire - watching the Patriot launch, rise along a projected track, and take out the enemy weapon.
"Awesome," was the one-word response from several JCOC participants - a reaction expressed repeatedly throughout their weeklong experiences.
Later in the day, the JCOC group made its way out to the McGregor Range Base Camp in New Mexico, about 28 miles north of Fort Bliss. The range encompasses about 1.1 million acres, about the same size as Rhode Island.
At the range, the JCOC received a crash course in gun safety and holding, aiming and firing a 9 mm pistol. They then donned protective vests, ear and eyewear and were escorted onto the range in groups to fire the weapons using live ammunition. They also got to keep the targets.
At a stop earlier in the week at Parris Island, S.C., JCOC members learned how to simulate firing a 9 mm at an indoor range, but this was their first experience on the pistol with live ammunition. They also practiced firing rocket-propelled grenade and Stinger missile launchers, firing simulated canisters rather than live ammunition, and posed for pictures with the deadly shoulder mounted weapons that have done so much damage in the hands of terrorists.
Between Patriot Park and McGregor Range, JCOC participants had lunch at the Stafford Dining Facility and shared their meal with a group of soldiers departing for Iraq. The participants got a chance to spend time with the soldiers, ask how they felt about their mission, and thank them for their service.
"The whole trip has been very impressive for me," said JCOC participant Nicole de Lara Valdes, an executive with E! Entertainment Television, Latin America. "The technology, the logistics -- my jaw has hit the floor more than once, but I had a knot in my throat when we were having lunch with those guys who were about to be deployed.
"One said he was given seven days to go home and see his family," she continued, "but he told me he just couldn't say goodbye to his 22-month-old daughter again. My heart went out to him and his family. That was probably the most emotional part of the trip for me. How do you appreciate that? It's very different to read about it in the papers than it is to look into the eyes of someone who is about to be deployed."
The JCOC's indoctrination into the Army at Fort Bliss ended much as it began. After the participants loaded their belongings into the great cabin of the C-17 and strapped themselves into their seats, the huge plane taxied down the runway, slowed to a crawl, then rose like a rocket into the evening sky, engines roaring in a perfect tactical ascent.