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In what I call a “warrior refresher,” I had the unique opportunity to embed with the U.S. Army Reserve in a combat exercise called “Operation Checkerboard” at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey. It was like being in the middle of a real campaign, and the sandy terrain at the base added a sense of realism to the scene.

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The soldiers divided up into two groups: One group would occupy and defend a Forward Operating Base, while another group would attack and attempt to seize the base as an “opposing force.” The exercise allowed soldiers to train as they fight, utilizing tactical movements, small-arms tactics, and effective offensive and defensive measures. U.S. Army Reserve soldiers from the 99th RSC Headquarters Company, 78th Army Band (Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst), 380th Army Band (Richmond, VA), 94th Army Band (East Windsor, CT), 319th Army Band (Fort Totten, NY), and 198th Army Band (Rochester, NY) participated in the exercise.

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The combat exercise began with an olive drab tandem rotor Boeing CH-47 Chinook Helicopter buzzing the tree line and banking down into a landing zone. With engines roaring, rotors spinning, and a sandstorm erupting, a wide loading ramp at the rear of the fuselage lowered and soldiers dressed in army combat uniforms, wearing advanced combat helmets, and carrying M16A2 assault rifles came swarming out into the dustup. The Boeing CH-47 is a heavy-lift multi-mission helicopter that moves troops and artillery into the battlefield.

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It took multiple helicopter landings to transport all the soldiers to the combat exercise. After disembarking from the helicopters, soldiers took orders from their superiors and began their combat objectives to occupy and defend a Forward Operating Base. The trek to the base took the soldiers down a long gravel sandy trail. With the sun blazing in the sky and temperatures in the high 80s, the soldiers formed a two-column formation and marched to their objective.

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Marching into action were soldiers who normally would be carrying musical instruments as members of the army band. They were now marching with instruments of war—assault rifles. The FN-manufactured M16A2 fires a 5.56mm NATO cartridge. The fire control selection: safe, semi-auto, and three-round burst. The M16A2 weighs approximately 8.79 pounds loaded. The original M16 rifle was produced in 1960 and different variations are used today.

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As members of the U.S. Army Bands, their mission is to provide music throughout the spectrum of military operations, to instill in the forces the will to fight and win, foster support of citizens, and promote national interests at home and abroad. For many of these soldiers, this was their first combat training exercise since boot camp. After soldiers secured the Forward Operating Base without any resistance from opposing forces, they took up defensive positions. Platoons were sent out on patrol and set up listening posts to combat the opposing force.

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As the soldiers were preparing for the anticipated attack, the opposing forces were airlifted into the combat arena aboard the same Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopter.

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Armed with the same assault rifles, these soldiers were part of Headquarter and Headquarters Company, the “opposing force,” and they were ready to meet their objectives to assault the Forward Operating Base. Now embedded with opposing force platoon soldiers, I followed as they traversed through heavy brush and wooded terrain in single file formation. As the soldiers made their way closer to the Forward Operating Base, sporadic firefights broke out. Sporadic firefights led to larger clashes, which led to an all-out assault on the Forward Operating Base.

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Widespread firefights ensued on both sides. Soldiers were firing their rifles from standing and prone positions. They took cover and concealment behind trees, sand dunes, and even behind the burned-out skeleton shells of automobiles and buildings. The assault was in full swing and I, for one, was glad this was just an exercise.

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After several hours and a lot of spent cartages, the combat exercise was over. Effective training challenges leaders and organizations with uncertain conditions, requiring them to adapt to evolving missions. Commanders create training conditions that force subordinate leaders to assess situations quickly and use critical and creative thinking to develop innovative and creative solutions to challenges. U.S. Army Reserve units conduct annual training to ensure that their soldiers are trained and prepared if called upon to serve at home or abroad.

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