A squad of nine soldiers approach a small village. Sagebrush scratches at their gray and green digital patterned camouflage uniforms as they advance. There are 13 buildings in the village and each is riddled with bullet holes.
“Target, 12 o’clock,” yells a soldier. “200 meters.”
They drop onto their stomachs and begin firing at the enemy target.
“Bang-bang-bang-bang-bang,” the soldiers shout. “Bang-bang-bang-bang-bang.”
The squad pushes through the village and pretends to open fire on an insurgent standing in the back of a battered blue truck on a hillside 50 meters away.
For the soldiers of the Washington National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 161st Infantry Regiment, this is day four of 14 at the Army’s Yakima Training Center. They just completed a dry-fire run in a mock village at SSG Kyle A. Eggers Range 25.
The battalion, referred to as 1-161st, is comprised of two infantry companies, two tank companies, a headquarters company and a forward support company.
Each company typically trains on its own during monthly weekend drills at their home armories, which are spread from Bremerton to Walla Walla, including armories in Yakima and Pasco. This recent two-week exercise gave the six companies a rare opportunity to work together.
There are 840 soldiers, 37 Bradley Fighting Vehicles and 29 tanks within 1-161st, according to Capt. Nick Stuart, 1-161st’s personnel officer in charge,
The Training Center makes an ideal training ground.
Its climate and terrain is similar to Afghanistan, and with about 511 square miles of rolling, arid sage land, there is ample room for maneuvers and live fire exercises.
During this training session, 65 soldiers are flown by Blackhawk helicopters to a mock village containing an IED manufacturer who they are to either kill or capture.
Back at SSG Kyle A. Eggers Range 25, named in honor of a Yakima soldier killed in Iraq in 2004, the soldiers prepare to repeat the exercise, this time with live rounds. The earlier dry-firing while shouting “bang, bang” is done so the team leaders can learn to control the rate and direction of firing.
Soldiers sit and stand at the base of a steep hill, clustered by squad. Each man loads rounds or helps gunners using the M-249 squad automatic weapon (SAW) or M-240G remove tracer rounds from long belts of ammunition. This is done to prevent brush fires.
“It’s been really good. They got (stuff) for us to do and keep us busy,” said Cpl. Jake Graves, 24, of Wenatchee.
Graves spent five years in the Army as a sniper with the 101st Airborne and served two tours in West Paktika, Afghanistan conducting counter-sniper operations. He’s been with the Guard for a year and a half.
1-161st deployed twice to Iraq, first in March 2004, during which three soldiers were killed in action, according to The Washington Post, and again in August 2008. Their most recent activation was last August when two helicopters were sent to help fight the Wenatchee Complex and Taylor Bridge fires in Kittitas County.
On their second go around, the soldiers shout instructions as they maneuver through the village and to the base of the hillside.
“Shift fire” signals the soldiers to change the direction they’re firing so other soldiers can move closer to the target. “Lift fire” signals them to lower their weapons as soldiers cross in front of them.
At the end of the exercise, 1st Sergeant Pat Turnage is encouraged by the squad’s performance, but warns them not to react too quickly.
“Every single squad has reacted to contact before contact,” Turnage said. “Fight the fight as it’s presented to you.”
Forty-five minutes away by YTC roads, tanks are firing. Several M1A1 Abrams tanks are aligned in a row facing desert hills that roll over the horizon. The targets are nearly 5,000 feet downrange; to hit them requires an elaborate calibration system.
Master gunners, who have been schooled on tank computing systems, take readings of barometric pressure, airspeed and the heat of the rounds.
“It’s all about confirming so we make sure the tank will hit where we want it to,” said Master Sgt. Brian Murphy.
The master gunners relay their findings to the tank crews. A tank lowers its barrel and prepares to fire. A group of soldiers looks on, many filming with smart phones. The tank fires a deafening test round. The earth quakes, creating a cloud of dust.
The soldiers let out a cheer and then resume their training.