By Edwin Wriston
| West Virginia National Guard Public Affairs | June 22, 2020
Members of the West Virginia National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 201st Field Artillery (FA) drive M109 A6 Paladin Self-Propelled Howitzer at Camp Dawson, Kingwood, West Virginia, June 14, 2020. The 201st FA is conducting Field Artillery Tables 1-5 pre-certification qualifications prior to conducting live-fire qualifications later this summer.(U.S. Army National Guard photo by Edwin L. Wriston) (Photo by Edwin L. Wriston)
The West Virginia National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 201st Field Artillery Regiment (1-201st FA BN) became the first major unit to resume normal training cycles during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, conducting a Super MUTA (Multiple Unit Training Assembly) at Camp Dawson, West Virginia, June 13-18, 2020.
Since the beginning of restricted operations in early March of 2020, regular and previously scheduled training for active duty, Reserve, and National Guard units in West Virginia and around the nation have been put on hold to help slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus. With states now reopening, military units are also reengaging training in order to maintain readiness and prepare for future missions.
“The pandemic is not going away, but we still have missions to train for,” stated Maj. Christopher Shamblin, commander of the 1-201st FA BN. “And while much of the basic military training such as suicide awareness, information assurance, etc., can be conducted virtually, our specific skills on our equipment need hands-on opportunities in order for us to maintain proficiency.”
The 201st operates the M109 A6 Paladin Self-Propelled Howitzer as their primary weapons system.
“Operational skills on the Paladin and within the artillery field in general are perishable,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Nickolas Lambruno. “Anytime that you don’t train, your skill levels degrade. You have to be on the equipment. The opportunity to come to Camp Dawson with our guns and allow Soldiers to be on the artillery for a week is a tremendous opportunity.”
The 201st conducted field artillery tables 1-5 pre-certification qualifications during their training, preparing the unit prior to conducting live-fire qualifications in Virginia later this summer. Soldiers also completed basic warrior tasks such as land navigation, small unit tactics, communications training, and combat life saver first aid.
“Beginning in 2021, the 201st with be part of a Ready Reaction Force (RRF) required to be in a rapid deployment posture,” said Shamblin. “As such, we have to achieve and maintain a heightened readiness level. This requires us to focus building competencies and developing good muscle memory for our core Mission Essential Task List (METL) skills as well as all the logistical and planning skills we need to hone to support our front-line warrior mission.”
Leading up to the Super MUTA, while the emphasis for training was on accomplishing METL skills, a large part of the planning focused on COVID-19 considerations, and how to conduct the training while keeping Soldiers safe and how to comply with Department of Defense (DoD) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance.
“Our Soldiers come from all over the state,” said Lambruno. “We have individual units of the 201st in Elkins, Morgantown, Lewisburg, Fairmont, and Kingwood, who are all here at Camp Dawson training together. The last thing we want is for Soldiers to get sick here, then endanger their families and communities when they get back home. So being safe and following official guidance is critical. We are taking every precaution to actively monitor our Soldiers by taking their temperatures twice a day, having them wear masks as much as possible and when needed, and keep safety protocols and COVID-19 awareness in place as much as possible.”
Planning for the Super MUTA included the need for increased berthing, feeding restrictions, the need for wide-spread use of hand sanitizer, mask availability and use, and even hydration concerns.
“Where you would normally request berthing for 300, you now have to request for 600 in order for Soldiers to maintain proper social distances while sleeping,” said Shamblin. “Water buffaloes have to be sanitized every 30-minutes for proper use, and staggered chow times and alternate feeding options are needed to keep large numbers of Soldiers from eating together. We also had to think through and plan for detailed courses of action for contingencies, such as active medical monitoring while in the field, if a Soldier becomes sick how to isolate that individual, etc., and how those efforts impact overall readiness and mission potential. All this while still keeping in mind regular threats to Soldiers such as heat stress and normal operational hazards.”
“The goal is to try to reduce and mitigate risk to Soldiers as much as possible while still meeting our mission requirements,” he added. “We simply need to adapt to and overcome the additional concerns COVID-19 presents.”
Even with the extra concerns of the pandemic, settling back into regular military training is beneficial to Soldiers and families alike.
“Being able to be back is a great thing,” said Lambruno. “Reengaging with our military family can provide an extra level of support and a sense of normalcy for our Soldiers which can help reduce stress from outside world situations. It gives us the opportunity to concentrate and focus solely on the mission for a bit. We also have Soldiers who need the income that drills and time in uniform provides.”
“In addition to the benefit to our individual Soldiers, getting the battalion and leadership together on the large-scale drill allows better integration and operational relationships to be established which will make us that much more proficient and capable down the road during our RRF rotation and for future deployments, he added. “We are proud to be the first unit to reengage and get the ball rolling again during the pandemic, and hope our efforts here can help keep all our West Virginia National Guard Soldiers and Airmen safe moving forward completing the multitude of missions we have.”