In February, my unit, the 25th Infantry Division’s 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, participated in the first Regional Combat Training Center rotation held over the course of two weeks in the Donnelly Training Area at Fort Greely, Alaska.
My signal soldiers from Charlie Company, 70th Brigade Engineer Battalion, provided 24-hour communication support to other units on a simulated battlefield in minus 20 degree Fahrenheit. The exercise included trainers from Fort Polk, Louisiana, allies with the Royal Canadian Army, Green Berets and even sister units from a far warmer climate — Hawaii.
The training was fantastic, showing how far our soldiers had come in mastering warfare in the frigid north. But more importantly, it showed how far we still have to go.
During this exercise, our Arctic soldiers faced many challenges due to the unforgiving environment. The number one rule in the Arctic is survivability. Survivability is taught during Cold Weather Indoctrination Training, which is a U.S. Army Alaska yearly requirement. It’s a place that the Army should resource further and send more students through.
As it stands, CWIC is broken into three phases.
CWIC I is the basic level of cold weather training. It is an introductory course with primarily classroom instruction that can be conducted monthly. CWIC II and CWIC III are conducted between the months of October through April and include the employment of Arctic equipment in an overnight environment. Each CWIC course is led by a graduate of the Cold Weather Leader School where soldiers are trained in-depth on Arctic survival and earn their Arctic Tab.
In the Arctic, sustainment is the first thing that needs to happen before setting up any equipment. This includes clearing snow and ice to ground level for the set-up of your ten-man Arctic tent, which is your heat source. Leaders must also be cognizant of the work/rest cycle to prevent any soldiers from getting a cold weather injury.
The Northern Warfare Training Center manages this training and is home to some of the most professional instructors the Army has to offer. By sending more soldiers and leaders to these advanced schools and providing NWTC with additional funding to get more soldiers through the program, we will be better prepared to fight.
As the brigade signal company, my unit’s mission is to provide upper and lower tactical internet for the brigade. This includes communicating to the division level, as well as providing assets to the battalion level to communicate to the brigade level.
We were successful in employing our signal equipment while facing 35-40 mph winds and sub-zero temperatures — all while taking indirect fire from an enemy threat. The high wind speeds also allowed us to test how well our commo equipment held up in fierce weather.
Conducting signal operations in the Arctic requires us to create unique tactics, techniques and procedures. The rotation showed our trainers from Fort Polk what we bring to the fight and the unique challenges our soldiers must overcome.
Though our equipment held up well, that won’t always be the case for every unit under every condition. The Army should place a bigger emphasis on the funding of Arctic equipment. This would allow units here to better perform their duties within the austere conditions.
With the service’s new Arctic strategy and the anticipated re-designation of Army Alaska as the 11th Airborne Division, the Army should also bring in more funding. This will go a long way toward acquiring unique Arctic equipment.
One problem we face: freezing locks. “Deicer” or “ice melting products” typically have a temperature when they no longer work. At minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit, those products will not work. This forces us to spend more time trying to access our vehicles or shipping containers where we store gear, which takes away valuable training time.
Another challenge is stakes. Due to the ground being frozen for several months out of the year, placing stakes can be very challenging and time consuming. A tool as simple as a specialized drill would save soldiers valuable time, allowing them to establish their heating shelters much faster.
These are simple purchases that already exist on the civilian market and would require no additional Army research or studies to develop and acquire. It’s a no-brainer.
There is also a huge stigma about Alaska in the Army, one of the main being the high rate of suicide and complaints that Alaska is a terrible place to be stationed. Army leaders have made huge strives in rebranding Army Alaska. The new 11th Airborne Division designation should add unit pride, help increase morale and give a sense of community for the soldiers stationed here.
But there are benefits to Alaska that need to be advertised, as well. This location provides some of the best training the Army has to offer.
During the summer, the 24-hour sunlight allows us more time on ranges, additional night training, and it is excellent for personnel and family events. You can only imagine a 21-year-old having a backyard BBQ at 1 a.m., a midnight softball game, or ripping the thousands of miles of ATV trails with the sun still out.
Alaska is also home to a mountaineering school and the Denali Expedition team, which gives soldiers the opportunity to climb Denali Mountain — the highest mountain peak in North America — as a part of a specialized team.
Hunting and fishing next to waterfalls and glaciers while seeing all sorts of wildlife like bears, orcas and moose, provide a truly unique experience that you can’t get at every duty station.
I am a firm believer that being stationed at such a special location contributed to the unit morale, which greatly increased our success during this past Regional Combat Training Center Rotation.
In Alaska, we get the chance to push our equipment in ways that have never been tested before. With our soldier’s hard work and determination, we are able to give the Army valuable feedback on how we can continue to dominate in the Arctic.
I am looking forward to how the service rebrands and further funds Army Alaska and I can’t wait to see the new 11th Airborne Division thrive.
1st Lt. Alvin S. Cade, Jr. is the executive officer for Charlie Company, 70th Brigade Engineer Battalion, 1st Stryker Brigade combat Team, out of Fort Wainwright, Alaska.
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