Loud, far and deadly
I’m riding in the back of a military issued Humvee with Staff Sgt. Jeffrey S. Smith and Sgt. Eric-James Estrada, traveling through back road sections of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.
Outside the zipped-up plastic side window is nothing but snow and trees and the white rise of mountains, everything pristine and untouched.
Then Smith brakes. A dark line of military vehicles veers into view and beyond, a splattering of tents and stacked boxes.
“Almost there,” Smith says.
We’re heading to a live-fire training mission for the 105mm howitzer.
The mission incorporates more than 3,000 soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 377th Parachute Field Artillery Regiment, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division.
The goal, according to Smith, is to certify troops in weapon systems and validate unit readiness in preparation for the brigade’s Joint Readiness Training Center rotation at Fort Polk, La.
We power up a small embankment, where we are met by Cpt. Philip Sakala of the Alpha Battery.
Sakala is good natured and cheerful, chatting about the weather as he leads us to a group of tents situated across the snow, the largest housing the howitzer.
It’s a beast of a gun, dark and hulking, with a narrow barrel that resembles a skinny cannon.
Eight soldiers bustle around, hefting large rounds and checking instruments. Each round weighs 45 pounds and is shipped in brown and black containers the troops call Tootsie Rolls.
Rounds travel 700 meters a second and can be shot up to 18 kilometers.
Each round has a kill rate of 35 meters.
The howitzer, Sakala tells me, is referred to as the King of Battle, since it produces the most casualties.
It takes about 20 minutes for soldiers to set up the weapon and involves a process of intricate teamwork, from the section chief to the gunner, to the ammo team chief to the cannoneers
“It’s a symphony of chaos,” Sakala says.
Loud and fierce
When the howitzer fires, the sound is so loud, the force is so strong that it lifts me slightly off the ground, my stomach jolting, my ears ringing. Smoke fills the air, along with the smell of sulfur. Three shots later, I stumble to my feet and we make our way over to headquarters, which is closed off by razor wire fencing. Inside the dark green tent it’s almost cozy, heaters blaring and solders hunched over laptops. There’s Internet access in here, Sakala tells me as we wait to speak with a commander. But he’s not here so we drive to a different camp, bumping along the rough roads.
We find Commander Sgt. Major Cameron Dinger at training site a few miles down the road, helicopters flying overhead.
Certification takes place twice a year, he says, and the current mission will last nine days.
“Not everyone gets it the first time,” he says.
The soldiers work until the craft becomes second nature.
“When we get the call we want them to be well prepared,’ he says.
On the way back to the Humvee we find Lt. Col. Christopher Ward standing by a Humvee of us own. He’s relaxed and chatty.
The goal of the training maneuvers is to develop more proficient artillery skills, he tells me.
“We want to be more accurate and faster, and everything we do out here is a drill,” he says.
The more soldiers can build muscle memory and perform on instinct, the better they’ll be at their jobs, he explains.
“It’s much like an orchestra,” he says.
We get back in the Humvee and head for our final destination: The observation post, where we’ll witness actual howitzer explosions.
Smoke, and then sound
The observation deck is a wood, two-story structure that looks out over a valley that reaches out toward the Inlet, the slope of the Sleeping Lady mountain in the background. It’s a scenic location and the late afternoon colors shade everything a soothing lavender tint.
Smith radios in to the command center and learns that the firing has been delayed. We lean over the frost-covered railing, waiting. As the sun lowers, the temperatures dip. An hour later, we hear back: Firings will soon commence.
The target is a group of vehicles out in the distance. Private 1st Class Tevan Merrifield moves a protractor over a map and calls in the grid numbers.
From there, the numbers are sent to the Fire Direction Center and then relayed to the soldiers out on the gun line, to be entered into the howitzer.
The explosion hits first, a puff of white smoke lifting from the ground and spreading outward, the sound reaches our ears seconds later, loud and abrupt.
According to Smith, the imagery of the impact, which is our eyes interpreting light, is much faster than sound.
This is why the sound of impact came after we observed the rounds impacting the ground.
Four more rounds are fired in quick succession and then it’s silent again, drifts of smoke lingering against the snowy background.
Smith asks if the explosions would have killed within the target vicinity, and Merrifield looks out at the trucks in the distance and nods his head yes.
We climb down the steps and walk back to the Humvee.
I glance over my shoulder but there’s nothing to see but the observation desk, the mound of duffel bags and soldier supplies and beyond that, the silence of a winter afternoon slowly giving way to evening.