Supporting the National Training Center

by Major William C. Latham, Jr.

Although their accomplishments often are overshadowed by the more visible presence of Fort Irwin's customer units, the "Desert Warriors" quietly keep the installation running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

It is 2115 on training day 4 of rotation 99-07 at the National Training Center (NTC) at Fort Irwin, California. One kilometer north of the distinctively shaped mark in the desert terrain known as "the Arrowhead," infantrymen from the Virginia Army National Guard dart forward in a crouch under the deadly blur of rotor blades. Their squad leader directs them to seats in the back of the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter. In the cockpit, the dimmed lights on the instrument panel illuminate the faces of First Lieutenant Martin Meyer and Chief Warrant Officer (W-3) John Crowley, members of the NTC's Corps Support Battalion, who wait patiently for the "pax" [passengers] to strap in. As the passenger doors slam shut, the UHF radio crackles.

"Flight, this is lead. We are going to depart to the south, break left, and follow the road to the east, where we'll hop over the `worm hole,' then slide left toward Red Lake, and come into the LZ [landing zone] from the east."

"Chalk Two, Roger."

"Chalk Three, Roger."

As air mission commander for this air assault, Meyer commands a flight of three UH-60's. His mission is to insert 100 light infantrymen into landing zones located in the enemy's rear area. If all goes as planned, these platoons will relay enemy locations and knock out enemy tanks before they even cross the line of departure.

Seconds after his last radio call, Meyer smoothly raises the collective lever with his left hand, increasing the pitch in the blades and lifting the aircraft up and forward. Pilots in the other two UH-60's perform the same maneuver almost simultaneously, and the flight forms a ragged line of march as the aircraft settle into cruise fleet, skimming south along the valley floor at 100 miles per hour.

The NTC Corps Support Battalion may be the best battalion you've never heard of. With over 900 soldiers and civilians assigned, the battalion supports almost every aspect of the NTC's mission to provide world-class training for the 70,000 Active Army, Army National Guard, and Army Reserve soldiers who train at Fort Irwin each year.

The late Major General James Wright, then the Army's Quartermaster General, once called the NTC Corps Support Battalion "the best support battalion in the United States Army." "Able, flexible leaders and tough, well-trained soldiers make the difference," explained Wright. "They hang tough on every mission."

Although the battalion's accomplishments often are overshadowed by the more visible presence of its customer units, the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment and the NTC Operations Group, the Desert Warriors keep the installation running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

The battalion's combat service support mission is unique. It provides direct support (DS) and general support (GS) maintenance for the NTC's aging pre-positioned fleet of over 1,200 vehicles and 15,000 items of equipment. It maintains equipment for the NTC Operations Group, the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, and the installation command group. The pre-positioned fleet alone contains two full brigades' worth of equipment, each of which sustains an operating tempo nearly four times higher than the Army average.

NTC Corps Support Battalion soldiers provide HET support to units training in the desert.

NTC Corps Support Battalion soldiers provide HET support to units training in the desert.

"Desert Warriors" tie down vehicles being transported in the day's HET mission. "Desert Warriors" tie down vehicles being transported in the day's HET mission.

In addition to its maintenance mission, the battalion operates a supply support activity and provides heavy equipment transporter (HET) support for both rotational "Blue Force" ("BLUFOR") units and the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment's opposing force (OPFOR). The battalion also provides air ambulance support to rotational units, the installation, and surrounding communities and aviation support of both the installation and the OPFOR. The battalion also provides administrative support for two explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) detachments that support the installation and communities throughout southern California.

The organization's soldiers execute each of these diverse missions daily. The battalion has cut its backlog of DS and GS work orders by more than half in the last 6 months, while safely flying over 2,000 hours. In addition, the battalion has achieved an exceptional rating on its last Army Forces Command (FORSCOM) Aviation Resource Management Survey, and it recently won the FORSCOM commander's Supply Excellence Award for the second year in a row.

At 0830, Specialist Bartley Wilt allows his high-mobility, multipurpose, wheeled vehicle (HMMWV) to creep forward slowly while he checks his position on his precision lightweight global positioning system receiver. Gentle breezes are all that remain of the previous night's 50-mile-per-hour winds, and the morning sunshine heats the cloudless blue sky. Wilt is searching diligently for Tarantula 12 Echo, one of the NTC's light infantry trainers, whose vehicle generator has malfunctioned.

Wilt is a member of the 699th Maintenance Company's "Marauders," a team of mechanics who specialize in making rapid, on-site HMMWV repairs. The Marauders patrol the desert throughout each training rotation, providing critical maintenance to the observer-controllers of NTC's Operations Group.

Five hundred meters later, Wilt spots the disabled HMMWV to his west and shouts, "He's over there!" The problem is a cracked bracket on the HMMWV's generator. Fortunately, Wilt brought three spares, and he attacks the job of removing the unserviceable generator.

Soldiers from the 31st Maintenance Company work in the M1A1 engine rebuild shop at the NTC. Soldiers from the 31st Maintenance Company work in the M1A1 engine rebuild shop at the NTC.
Soldiers from the 31st Maintenance Company work in the M1A1 engine rebuild shop at the NTC.

It is now 1115 at the "Flagpole." The midday sky is cloudless and breezy, providing the BLUFOR and OPFOR soldiers with a much-needed break from the 90-degree heat. A 60-foot-long HET turns in a graceful arc at the end of a long line of other already-parked HET's. Behind the trucks, two dozen track crews wait impatiently to load their tracks onto the HET trailers for the move west to their next battle position.

The loading goes quickly and smoothly. With the flip of a switch, the driver of the first HET slowly lowers his trailer bed on hydroelectric "bogie cylinders." Once the bed is lowered, he drops down the two loading ramps and waves the waiting Sheridan tank forward onto the trailer. Within 2 minutes, the tank is chained securely to the trailer.

Down the line of HET's, the sequence is repeated 24 times. Then the big trucks rumble west in a line, each vehicle trailed by a dark brown cloud of dust. Despite the dusty conditions, drivers leave both cab windows open. The breeze provides limited relief from the combined heat of the desert sun and the vehicles' 500-horsepower engines.

After 40 minutes of jostling over bumps and potholes, the convoy reaches the top of Brown Pass at 1215. Again, the HET's arc left into line, drop their ramps, and offload their lethal cargoes. The OPFOR crews rapidly mount their tanks and rattle off to their separate battle positions. Amid a symphony of slamming ramps and rattling chains, the HET drivers prepare their vehicles for the next "flip" back to the "Flagpole," where more tracks stand waiting for a ride.

In the 577th Maintenance Company Shop Office, First Lieutenant George Durhan squeezes past a crowd of soldiers and civilian contractors in the outer office to reach for his phone. It is 1345, and his supply sergeant has just notified him that a major repair part is missing. Durhan needs to call to see if he can walk through another parts request before close of business.

As shop officer for the largest maintenance company at Fort Irwin, Durhan has his hands full managing the maintenance efforts of 250 soldiers and 11 shops. While the unit's mechanics perform knuckle-busting work on the vehicles in the pre-positioned fleet, Durhan juggles priorities to ensure that parts are on hand, jobs get completed on time, and the right people work on the right jobs.

Durhan is part of a cadre of proud young officers and noncommissioned officers who sustain the NTC Corps Support Battalion. Together, they provide the leadership and discipline needed to carry out the commander's vision of a trained, ready battalion that provides outstanding support to its customer units.

Training and maintenance are tough, dirty jobs at the NTC. As the saying goes, "Life be hard in the desert." Thanks to the continuous, round-the-clock efforts of the Desert Warriors, however, the vehicles keep running and the NTC continues to provide world-class training to a world-class Army. ALOG

Major William C. Latham, Jr., is an instructor in the English department at the U.S. Military Academy. He has a B.A. degree from Georgetown University and an M.A. degree from the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.