Soldiers prep for deployment to Joint Readiness Training Center

Wednesday, January 20, 2016 - 10:26
  • Army Pfc. Michael Lancaster, assigned to B Battery, 2nd Battalion, 377th Parachute Field Artillery Regiment, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, U.S. Army Alaska, laughs with fellow paratroopers before a live fire with M119A2 105mm howitzers, Monday, Jan. 11, 2016. USARAK is home to the Army’s only Pacific airborne brigade combat team, and maintains the only airborne rapid-response capacity within the Pacific Command Area of Responsibility.U.S. Air Force photo by Justin Connaher

JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON — A lone group of artillerymen stand by a M119A2 howitzer waiting for a fire mission.

The Soldiers, masters of their craft, have set up their station. They have trained for this day, practicing every aspect until they could do it asleep.

The call comes, and instantly the team springs into action. Every movement is calculated, each step purposeful. The speed and dexterity of the soldiers make the ring from the incoming call and the billowing smoke from the howitzer seems simultaneous.

It’s difficult to determine which is more impressive — their speed, or the strength they exemplify standing in the frigid Alaska winter.

Soldiers assigned to 2nd Battalion, 377th Parachute Field Artillery Regiment, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, U.S. Army Alaska, are preparing to deploy to the Joint Readiness Training Center in Fort Polk, Louisiana, in the coming months.

“We stay overnight, and that’s also where we get a lot of our arctic training,” said Staff Sgt. Joseph Ricci, B Battery, 2-377th section chief. “We have to sleep outside and use our equipment. There aren’t many units in the Army that are artillery like us and work in the arctic. Especially being airborne, we are the only (unit) in the world that are airborne-qualified and arctic-qualified. Arctic warriors as they call us.”

Utilizing the weapon in the frigid temperatures of Alaska makes the 2-377th fire missions unique.

“If we have to go to war in a location where (the temperature) is below freezing, we will probably be the first ones they call,” Ricci said.

Leading up to the deployment, the Soldiers performed live-fire exercises using the howitzer on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson to ensure Soldiers are proficient at their job, said Sgt. 1st Class Jairo Torres, 2-377th platoon sergeant. Current live-fire exercises are part of the certification to then fire at JRTC.

“There are different criteria we have to meet prior to deploying to JRTC,” Torres said. “Soldiers have to complete a safety written test, the artillery skills proficiency test, the gunner’s test, and section certification. Section certification involves crew drills, dry-fire missions, rigging, and direct-fire missions.”

The howitzer can be used to combat a variety of targets, whether they’re personnel, buildings or weapons caches, or to support troops in contact with the enemy.

There is little room for error when operating the gun, which is why attention to detail is so important — and why the need for checks and balances for each part of the operation is equally critical.

Everyone’s job in the fire mission is important, Ricci said. This is a team effort and no one man can do everything.

After receiving the coordinates from the fire direction center, field artillery units have 30 seconds to launch the round, said Torres. It requires accuracy and precision.

A round from the howitzer can travel miles depending on the charge used.

“The forward observers will call in the data,” Ricci said. “They will get a grid and send it to the fire direction center; they’re the brains of the artillery. They calculate where the target is and the give us the quadrant and the deflection. We input the (data) into the sight. We line up (our shot). When (everything) is verified, we launch the round.”

While the process might not be instantaneous, it is impressive to consider the speed at which Soldiers calculate the necessary trajectory of the fired round.

“In a real-world (situation), not training, from when the forward observer calls for a fire mission to ... when we launch it, I would say it could be completed in five minutes,” Ricci said. “Downrange, fire missions have to be approved. That could play into some waiting. If troops are dying, or are in contact with the enemy, we can (provide support) in less than five minutes.”

While current fire missions might go on until 2 a.m., the Soldiers from the 2-377th don’t have the luxury of going home for the night.

“The weapon is made for mountainous regions,” Ricci said. “A lot of units that are in Afghanistan right now — that are in the mountains (or) in the outposts — are using the 119A2 howitzer. It is a very maneuverable weapon and is the optimal weapon for Afghanistan.”

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