On one of the coldest mornings in Louisiana this year, two Troops of the 2-108th Cavalry awoke at 5 in the morning to being training. On December 9th , the soldiers were at Camp Beauregard, a National Guard base near Alexandria.
The soldiers arrived Friday night. Most have civilian jobs and worked Friday, but instead of going out to eat or to see a movie, they gathered up and drove their military vehicles two hours south to the base. Once there, they bivouacked outside in the freezing temperatures. Some slept in tents and others inside the vehicles. A few slept outside, and one soldier said he had slept on the hood of a Humvee to keep himself warm.
They woke up early and got to work, setting up their gun ranges for the day’s evolutions. Their goal this weekend was to qualify with their personal weapons- M4 rifles and M9 pistols. To qualify, a soldier had to shoot 23 of 40 targets. The targets were spaced out from 50 to 300 meters and would pop up and down randomly. The targets are measured and controlled by a computer system which is located in a tower behind the range.
Before any soldier could shoot for qualification, they had to shoot at the zero range. The purpose of the zero range is to ensure that their rifle scopes were properly aligned. It can be tedious, because even a small adjustment of the sight can shift their aim by several meters when aiming at far away targets.
Once their rifles were properly sighted, they were sent to the main gun range where they were paired off. While one soldier shot, the other soldier acted as a safety inspector, ensuring the shooter handled their weapon properly and ensuring the gun was empty after each round. Although almost 200 soldiers shot, there were no safety violations.
The qualification shoot consisted of 4 rounds. The soldiers had to shoot targets from a prone-supported position, which means they were laying on their stomach and their rifle was supported by a foam block, then prone-unsupported, where the soldier had to steady the rifle with their hand, and then another round where the soldiers had to sit up and shoot.
The final round was their Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear (CBRN, pronounced see-burn) shoot. For this, the soldier had to don their CBRN protective mask and shoot. They must complete all four of these drills while wearing their helmet and a flak vest, both of which are heavy and become uncomfortable after a few minutes.
Qualifying with their weapons is an important part of their job. The 2-108th is a combat unit, and each soldier needs to know how to effectively use their personnel weapons. Depending on their scores, there are 4 levels of qualifications- qualified, marksmen, sharpshooter, and expert.
For enlisted soldiers, each level achieved gives them promotional points, which help them move up in rank. The enlisted men can also wear a small device on their dress uniform which denotes their level of qualifications. For the officers, no such device exists- they are all expected to shoot expert.
The exercise was controlled by a group of young lieutenants, two platoon leaders and the troop’s executive officer, and one enlisted soldier who ran the computer. At the conclusion of the round, one of the lieutenants would shout each soldier’s scores down to them from the tower.
Most soldiers qualified their first time, but if for some reason they did not, they were assisted by an experienced member of the troop and then were given the opportunity to shoot again. At the end of the day, every soldier from the two combat troops Alpha and Bravo qualified. That fact is pretty amazing when you consider that most of the men in 2-108th are only ‘part-time” warriors.
Unlike their active duty counterparts, National Guard soldiers only get a few weekends a year to practice their skills. Despite this, they must qualify using the same standards as active duty soldiers. Judging by their performance and professionalism, you’d never be able to tell the difference.
While not shooting, the soldiers looked for ways to kill some time. Some of the more senior noncommissioned officers ran the younger soldiers through different warfighter drills, while the other soldiers tried to keep warm and got a chance to catch up with their friends in the unit. There is also a good deal of ribbing between the men, but it’s always good natured and respectful.
The unit usually only meets one weekend a month, so they don’t get to see each other very often. Despite this, the unit is close-knit, and the men all enjoy catching-up with one another.
They talk about anything and everything during their downtime- passed trainigs, their families and careers, anything to keep their mind off of the cold. One soldier, Sergeant Cutlip, who serves as the troop’s communications specialist, gave a few soldiers and this reporter a complete explanation of the power grid system that supplies electricity to residential homes. Sergeant Cutlip is in school for instrumentation and hopes to get a job working for a defense contractor after graduation.
Once the sun had gone down the temperature plummeted, but the training wasn’t over. Each soldier had to qualify again. This time while using their night vision optics, which they refer to as “nodds”. The range is in the middle of the woods with almost no light pollution, so once the sun was down it was pitched black outside. Being a Cavalry unit, the soldiers will be expected to run combat operations at night, so knowing how to shoot in the dark while wearing their nodds is extremely important.
Because the nodds sit awkwardly on their helmets, it’s impossible to use their rifle scopes. Instead, they rely on a laser aiming device that sits on the front of the rifle. Once activated, the laser shoots a beam of infrared light down range that the soldier uses to aim their rifle. The infrared beam is invisible to the naked eye, but their nodds allow them to see it. Lieutenant Gahagan, the 28-year-old executive officer who works as a construction superintendent in the civilian world, describes the view while shooting with nodds on as looking like a disco.
While the nodds makes shooting in the dark easier, it’s still a challenge. The nodds show everything in shades of green and black and take away your depth perception. A two-foot hole looks the same as a 20 feet hole. Its a task just to walk a straight line while wearing them, so shooting at a small target several meters away is especially difficult.
The night qualification took several hours, and it was approaching midnight by the time they finished. Every soldier tried to find a warm place to sleep before their 5 am wake-up time Sunday morning, when they break camp and head back to their civilian lives.
If you’d like to learn more about the Louisiana National Guard or the 2-108th Cavalry Squadron you can visit their website at http://geauxguard.la.gov/