Story By Master Sgt. David Eichaker
Michigan National Guard
CAMP GRAYLING, Mich. — The Michigan Army National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 125th Infantry Regiment was recently evaluated for proficiency in coordination with First Army. The Army National Guard’s eXportable Combat Training Capability (XCTC) program is an instrumented Brigade field training exercise that provides an experience similar to a Combat Training Center to Guard Soldiers. This training is essential even amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with precautionary measures in place to ensure the training could be conducted safely.
“This training is really critical for the training progression of an Infantry Brigade Combat Team,” said Army Lt. Col. Michael Zultak, battalion commander, 1-125th Infantry Regiment, Michigan Army National Guard. “XCTC is a building-block event that is really the last gate before a National Guard Brigade Combat Team goes to the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) at Fort Polk, which is the culmination of a 4 to 5-year training cycle for a brigade combat team.”
During the training, the Michigan Soldiers were observed by active duty Soldiers called observer-coach-trainers (OCTs). OCTs play a critical role in providing feedback to the unit, informally, through everyday interactions and formally through mid and final after-action reviews (AARs) plus the final exercise report. These events give the training audience actions to consider for sustainment and improvement.
“We are the observer-coach-trainers that are embedded as partners with the National Guard to help them on all their training events,” said Army Staff Sgt. Brandon Burleson, observer-coach-trainer, 189th Combined Arms Training Brigade, Fort Lewis, Washington. “We will follow along, observe the Soldiers, coach and train them throughout the way, give them good critical feedback, and finally conduct AARs to help them with that feedback so they can be better at their mission and continue onto their mobilization.”
The XCTC is one of the critical final phases before deployments.
“This is the last large training event that is done annually,” said Burleson. “This is the last stepping-stone where they will see OCTs before moving on to either the JRTC rotation or the NTC and then from there, off to their mobilization station and then deployment.”
The Michigan Guard Soldiers were training against oppositional forces (OPFOR) from the Army’s 10th Mountain Division based out of Fort Drum, New York. This OPFOR reflects a composite of the characteristics of military and/or paramilitary forces that may be present in actual operational environments (OEs) in which U.S. forces might become involved. Like those actual threats or enemies, the OPFOR will continue to present new and different challenges for U.S. forces. The nature of OE is constantly changing and it is important for U.S. Army training environments to keep pace with real-world developments.
“Essentially, all of the systems from all of the warfighting functions come together in a field environment – an austere environment – and for 15 days, the brigade goes force-on-force with an OPFOR element,” said Zultak. “This is very similar to a deployment and is the last annual training before the JRTC, and it’s the last opportunity for us to train for an extended period of time outside of drill weekends to hone our craft.”
One Soldier new to Army service reflected on the quality of training.
“This training helps me tune mission details and better understand what needs to be done, how something is to be done, and when something is to be done,” said Pfc. Levi Hair, rifleman, C Company, 1st Battalion, 125th Infantry Regiment, Michigan Army National Guard. “I was able to help plan missions and plot points, which was new for me and typically would be required only at higher ranks.”
“It’s been very good, productive training and it has built a lot of comradery within the unit to make us more cohesive—we have definitely grown together as a unit,” he said.
The training took on an added significance in light of the impact COVID-19 has had on the typical drill weekends when Guard members would usually perform military duty one weekend a month.
“Since we lost so much training time during the April, May, and June months due to COVID, we are making up for it now,” said Zultak. “We are maintaining our momentum going into a really critical year in our training strategy.”
Due to the pandemic, numerous precautions were put in place to help alleviate COVID from entering the ranks.
“We have done a lot to mitigate COVID, going even above and beyond the state and Centers for Disease Control standards to make sure our Soldiers and their families are safe coming here and when we leave,” said Zultak. “That includes mandated guidance for social distancing, masks, and hygiene.”
“It comes down to protecting our mission, protecting our members, and protecting our communities – those are our priorities,” he said.