Arctic Tough

Difficult terrain no match for the 501st


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Soldiers either dragged or carried their sleds up the hill, taking turns hitched by rope to the heavy sleds.

Matt Tunseth

In the 1980s, a famous recruiting commercial claimed the U.S. Army does “more before 9 a.m. than most people do all day.”

That’s still the case.

Well before dawn on the morning of Jan. 31, more than 200 members of the Army’s 1st Battalion (Airborne), 501st Infantry Regiment arrived under cover of darkness at the foot of Arctic Valley Road. Carrying 35-pound rucksacks and decked out in their camouflage combat uniforms, the men briefly listened to instructions from their platoon leaders before springing into action.

Within minutes, each 18-man platoon hitched three or four of its members to a 250-pound sled, formed up and began marching up the icy road on a 2.5-mile trek.

Although there were plenty of off-color jokes at the starting line, there wasn’t any complaining. After all, we’re talking about paratroopers.

“This is what they signed up for,” said Capt. Jeff Pawlik.

The platoons were marching up the dark, snow-covered road as part of a “fun” competition designed to make soldiers work together toward a common goal. In addition to carrying the heavy sleds and gear, there were added challenges along the way. Halfway up the 300-foot elevation gain, the platoons had to carry the sleds above their heads.

“It’s a good way to focus on the team-building aspect of what we do,” Capt. Pawlik said.

After reaching the top of the hill, each platoon had to then unpack its snowshoes and demonstrate their ability to quickly adapt to Arctic conditions before jogging the 2.5-miles back to the starting line. Of the 13 platoons to compete, all finished in less than two hours, with the 2nd Comanche Company completing the course in just 1 hours, 32 minutes and 59 seconds.

The 501st is part of the larger 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, a 3,500-member unit that recently returned from a 10-month tour in Afghanistan. But airborne units are designed to go anywhere in the world, so Capt. Pawlik said dealing with below-freezing temperatures is excellent training for the paratroopers.

“We pretty much can fight or operate in any environment,” he said.

Capt. Pawlik said the U.S. Army Alaska is lucky to have places like the rugged Chugach Mountains literally in its back yard.

“It’s definitely a good area to train in,” he said.

As the soldiers worked through their arduous task, they goaded, prodded and encouraged each other the entire way. Many of the men were unfamiliar with snowshoes, meaning they had to work with each other to quickly put on the winter gear.

Lt. Col. Tobyn Masgig said that cooperative spirit is vital to creating a cohesive fighting unit.

“We don’t do anything as individuals,” said Lt. Col. Masgig.

Specialist Steven Kruger, of Phoenix, said such training exercises help soldiers understand what it takes to work as part of a team. Since the entire platoon had to cross the finish line before the clock stopped, Kruger said teamwork was absolutely vital to completing the march.

“If you’re going to complain, you’re not going to get up and down that hill,” he said.

After completing the task, Spc. Kruger joined his buddies at the bottom of the hill. Rather than hunching over and gasping for air, the soldiers seemed more than ready to charge back up the road if needed. Kruger said he joined the Army for adventure and challenge — and the early-morning competition was certainly that.

“Oh yeah, it was real fun,” he said with a grin.

As the first hint of dawn began to show up in the valley, Kruger and his fellow soldiers hopped aboard a truck for the short ride back to base.

It was 0800 — time for some chow.

 

Contact Matt Tunseth at 694-2727.

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