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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, April 3, 2003

Army troops practice under live fire on Big Island

By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Big Island Bureau

The scenario seemed simple enough, but it took days of planning and rehearsals at the Pohakuloa Training Area to pull it off. Even the radio chatter was practiced, so that everyone would know what to expect.

An Army 60mm mortar team sets up and begins to drop rounds on a target at the Big Island's Pohakuloa Training Area yesterday.

Kevin Dayton • The Honolulu Advertiser

After simulated ground strikes by A-10 jets, Bravo Company of the 3rd Battalion 35th Infantry Regiment dropped in by helicopter to Landing Zone Maine, and dashed through the small hills surrounding the target in columns.

The company quickly threw machine gunners, mortars and snipers into position, using live rounds in a rare training exercise that combined helicopter, jet, artillery and ground attacks in a single operation.

With that firepower rattling and thumping and forcing the imaginary opposition to duck, combat engineers used plastic explosives to tear a hole in the perimeter wire.

Attacking foot soldiers then sprinted through the hole in the wire in pairs or small groups, attacking and clearing a complex of bunkers linked by trenches.

This was just the kind of operation troops from the 101st Airborne Division are launching in Iraq, and the soldiers involved said the use of live ammunition gives the exercise a seriousness and an adrenaline rush that can't be faked.

"It's necessary because it keeps us on our toes," said Staff Sgt. Ricky Salinas, who led two fire teams into the bunker complex. "We could get the call later tonight saying we have to do this, so we're always training and we're always preparing ourselves, so when the call does come, we have no doubts in our mind. We can go anywhere and do what we have to do."

Spc. Stephen Pezzullo, who served with the 1st Ranger Battalion in Afghanistan last year, said he trusts the men in his new unit to watch his back. "Oh, yeah, this unit's there," he said.

"The time comes, we'll be over there. That's why we're out here," said Pezzullo, 24. "I don't know what to expect. Anything can happen when your country calls."

In the pause that followed the assault on the bunker complex, battalion command Sgt. Maj. Arthur Coleman paced the hilltop overlooking the bunkers, checking to be sure a heavy machine gun and wire-guided anti-tank rocket were in their proper places on the company's left and right flanks. They were.

"I wouldn't call it perfect," Coleman said of the first phase of the action, but he was clearly pleased. "Pretty near. They've done well. I'm proud of them."

A squad of TV and newspaper reporters and photographers were granted close access to the training exercise yesterday at a time when the U.S. Army is planning to expand Pohakuloa by 23,000 acres, expand the landing strip there and build a new tank trail at the complex.

There has been no groundswell of opposition to that proposal yet, but the plan does have its critics, and County Councilman Bob Jacobson introduced a resolution supporting creation of a citizen advisory panel to offer input on activities at Pohakuloa.

With the nation at war, the clear underlying message from the military yesterday was that the training area is critical for troop readiness. At a groundbreaking ceremony for a new range control complex at Pohakuloa yesterday, Col. David L. Anderson, commander of the U.S. Army Garrison Hawai'i, called Pohakuloa "the perfect training area for our forces."

"Pohakuloa and our training area out here is what we owe our soldiers as they prepare for combat," he said.

Reach Kevin Dayton at kdayton@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 935-3916.