FORT HUNTER LIGGETT, Calif., June 21, 2017 —
“Keep pounding” was more than a slogan for Army Reservists training at the Warrior Exercise here this month.
It was a reality: both physical and mental.
The ground was so hard that military police soldiers broke five mallets while pounding tent pegs into the dirt. As each mallet broke, they just kept pounding with the next one. The heat climbed above 100 degrees Fahrenheit each day, and even though it was a dry heat, it caused the dust to fly around and settle on soldiers from their eyebrows down to their bootstraps.
But the ground and the heat weren’t the only obstacles military police faced during this WAREX.
WAREX is a cyclical training event designed to evaluate Army Reserve brigades, battalions and companies in their specific functional areas.
When the 384th Military Police Battalion travelled from Indiana to California for training, they thought they knew exactly what they were getting into. They’d been planning for months for their usual mission: detention operations for enemy prisoners of war.
But without warning, the mission changed. Instead of guarding hundreds of prisoners, they were now tasked with feeding and housing thousands of displaced civilians.
“We’re equipped to in process 550 people a day. But on one day, busloads of 800 people showed up as an ‘inject.’ We had to move into accelerated in processing,” said Army Lt. Col. Joseph Adamson, the 384th MP Battalion commander.
Thankfully, those numbers were “notional,” but for the battalion staff it didn’t make much of a difference. They still had to react and execute planning as if 800 human beings had just showed up on their installation. This tested their battle staff procedures, decision-making, communication and logistics. All of that while being required to pack up and move their tactical operational spaces in the middle of their exercise.
“We didn’t have a playbook for this kind of mission, so we’re building one on the fly,” Adamson said.
It’s a good thing the playbook is being written now, before the team enters a real theater of war. Switching from a “prisoner operation” to a “life support” mission is significant. But the scenario was not put together on a whim. Rather, taking care of displaced civilians is a very real possibility for military police.
'Eyes Out, Guns Out'
In the last 15 years of fighting, U.S. troops have fought mainly in counterinsurgency operations, often known as “asymmetric warfare.” Now, the Army wants to maintain that knowledge and awareness, but also return to its roots of fighting “near-peer” enemies, such as organized military forces.
“We’ve been dealing with insurgent type activity [for so long]. When you start thinking about linear battlefield and uniformed enemy, it’s totally different,” said Army Maj. Travis Gilbert, officer-in-charge of operations for the 384th MP Battalion.
“Our focus has always been: ‘Eyes in, guns in,’ while watching detainees, to now the mission changes with displaced civilians: ‘Eyes out, guns out. Provide security.’ [That's] just a huge mindset change,” Gilbert said.
In such a scenario, when a war first breaks out, there will be thousands of civilians whose homes, schools, hospitals and infrastructure are destroyed. They will need shelter, food, medical aid and care.
“Someone has to take care of them. That’s a huge partnership we have with civil affairs, to provide life support and meet their physical needs,” Adamson said.
For the first time, setting up their own tents for sleeping and operations in a training environment felt more real than ever.
“Most of us know that over the course of the last 15 years, when we deploy, we fall in on hardened structures and air conditioning and pre-set communications and all that infrastructure that’s set up, right?” Gilbert said.
Perhaps, there will be no such amenities welcoming soldiers in their next fight. No housing units, Internet connectivity or dining facilities serving warm steaks. The only stakes will be the ones getting pounded into the hard ground to raise new tents.
So as military police soldiers “keep pounding” during WAREX, this training prepares them for whatever enemy and obstacles the Army Reserve faces next.