It’s been more than 10 years since the Washington National Guard’s 81st Brigade Combat Team deployed overseas.
In that time, the brigade has traded its Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles for lighter Stryker infantry vehicles, and it now includes troops from Oregon and California.
And they’re at the Yakima Training Center this month for their annual training to hone their combat skills in anticipation of training at the National Training Center and possible deployment.
“YTC is the perfect environment to posture ourselves both with the physical and mental rigor we experience at the National Training Center,” said Col. Shaughnessy Hodge, the brigade’s commander.
It was also the first time the unit has assembled since it was converted into a Stryker brigade in 2016 to work together at the platoon and company level, Hodge said.
National Guard units typically have a two-week training session each year. This year, the 81st is taking three weeks at the center to prepare for training at the national center at Fort Irwin, Calif., where they will go into simulated combat with other units.
At the Yakima Training Center, the brigade is working on different aspects of a combat deployment at different spots on the sprawling satellite installation of Joint Base Lewis-McChord. At one corner of the training center, soldiers were conducting a mass casualty drill, with armored vehicles serving as ambulances bringing injured soldiers to a battalion aid station.
At the aid station, medics quickly assessed the injured, determining which ones could wait, and which needed immediate treatment. The more seriously injured were taken to a tent to be stabilized and prepared for evacuation by helicopter.
As medics tended to patients, a chaplain with a priest’s stole over his fatigues was administering spiritual comfort.
“This is the worst-case scenario for medics,” said Capt. Jordan Villeneuve, who was overseeing the aid station as casualties were overwhelming resources. And it’s not just a battlefield scenario they’re preparing for, Villeneuve said.
The brigade could just as easily be setting up a field aid station to help victims of a volcanic eruption, earthquake or other natural disaster.
Adding to the realism was a stiff wind that shook tents and kicked up dust all around the aid station, getting into the eyes and mouths of soldiers and visiting dignitaries, who were being ferried on military helicopters.
“It’s the ideal training conditions,” Villeneuve said.
But the conditions were not so ideal over at one of the training center’s live-firing ranges. Columns of Stryker vehicles scheduled to train with their vehicle-mounted weapons were idling as if in Seattle traffic due to the winds.
When winds exceed 15 mph, the training center shuts down live-fire exercises in summer months because of the increased fire danger.
But the troops in line were grateful to be there.
“This is the closest thing we can get to a war-training environment,” said Maj. Nick Zimmer, operations officer for the 1-161 Infantry Battalion.
Hodge said the training center allows the troops to train under the same conditions they’ll find at Fort Irwin, in the California desert, as well as ensure the brigade is functioning at full readiness, from its command staff to troops on the ground.
In addition to the 4,000 troops, there are also 1,000 personnel supporting the training operation at the center, Hodge said.