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Soldiers occupy high ground during Mountain Peak maneuvers. Photos: Joanna Richards
Soldiers occupy high ground during Mountain Peak maneuvers. Photos: Joanna Richards

Fort Drum training stretches soldiers' skills, from private to commanding general

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Traffic jams are expected today as Fort Drum wraps up its biggest training exercise in a decade. Operation Mountain Peak is the first opportunity the whole division, top to bottom, has been able to train together in all that time.

Reporter Joanna Richards donned body armor and a helmet to observe the maneuvers and find out how soldiers prepare for war.

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Joanna Richards
Watertown Correspondent

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More photos of the Mountain Peak maneuvers

The village is full of insurgents, and soldiers with M-16s lie on a berm above it, firing into the low, concrete buildings. After a while, a woman's wailing can be heard below the gunfire.

This isn't a village in Afghanistan, it's part of a training exercise dubbed Operation Mountain Peak at Fort Drum. For about two weeks, 10,000 10th Mountain Division soldiers and several thousand airmen brought in from other units have been living in the field, day and night. They've been completing missions, sometimes at the drop of a hat, to practice the skills they'll need during expected deployments in Afghanistan.

Lieutenant Colonel Michael Loos, the division's operations officer, said: "We've been so busy across the Army, especially the last few years, that we've been training units to the best of our ability and then getting them out the door."

But now, thanks to longer "dwell times," or time at home, Fort Drum was able to plan its first division-wide training exercise since 9/11. The division still has some soldiers from its 10th Sustainment Brigade deployed to Afghanistan, but all of its three infantry brigades are here at the post.

In Army speak, Mountain Peak offers an opportunity for "multi-echelon training." In layman's terms, what that means is that soldiers and units at all levels get to train together, from the single private training with his weapon, to company-level battle exercises that incorporate helicopter support, to planners and logisticians figuring out how to move thousands of troops, food, water and equipment around Fort Drum's 47,000 acres.

Even the division headquarters staff has left behind their air-conditioned offices for high-tech tents in the field. Loos says the conditions are part of the training: "When you have to contend with the generators – someone has to go put fuel in them – when you have to contend with, 'Do we have the electrical system set up correctly?' These are all great lessons learned over the last week or so."

The division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team returned from an Afghanistan deployment in March, so many of the Mountain Peak training exercises focus on enabling the brigade to impart lessons learned to the division's two other infantry brigades.

Loos explains, "We call them tactics, techniques and procedures that they learn from a year's time in Afghanistan. You shouldn't walk this way, and we recommend you create a formation that moves like this, because of how the enemy fights, because of the enemy tactics, techniques and procedures. You should try to use your weapons system in this manner; it's more effective, because you can't see over a window top if you stand like this."

Back at the mock Afghan village, Specialist Scott O'Donnell is braced for casualties. He's a platoon medic, and it's his job to treat and help medevac soldiers who have been mock-injured in the battle. He describes his role in the exercise, "They'll say, 'You've got a penetrating chest wound,' and I have to step in and treat them as if they're real. I have to pull out my med pack, pull out whatever items I need to treat that casualty. You know, we tie 'em to a litter and we send 'em out to the bird, bird takes off and flies away."

O'Donnell says the experience has made him more confident in his abilities and it's made his platoon come together as a team.

Colonel David James Francis is commander of the 10th Combat Aviation Brigade. He says the big idea behind Mountain Peak is simple: stress soldiers out now, so they'll be less stressed later, in a real war zone.

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