Soldiers take howitzers out for target practice

By Paul Harris

Soldiers of the 17th Field Artillery returned to what they do best on Wednesday afternoon: shooting with a howitzer.

The shooting was part of a recertification process and a return to “core competency,” said Command Sergeant Maj. Phong Tran.

The soldiers were firing at targets 4-10 miles down range.

It was the first time in nearly 24 months that the 17th Field Artillery was involved in a live fire training exercise. The unit returned from a year-long deployment to Baghdad late last year.

Regaining those artillery skills is like getting back in the driver’s seat of a car, said Battalion Commander Lt. Col. Andrew Gainey.

“You have not been in it a while and you get back out here and work through the rough spots,” Gainey said. “Once you get back in to the system, you know that this is your specialty and the soldiers are right now in their element.”

To get the 300 soldiers back in a rhythm, Gainey said the exercises were going to be operated at a much slower pace than they would in real-life combat.

There were some miscues during Wednesday afternoon’s exercise at a training site off Old Highway 77. Tran attributed those to a communication problem.

The guns recently downloaded new software and were rejecting the coordinates being plugged in to the system.

Tran said they had to go in and reboot the entire system. While the guns could be operated manually, Tran said soldiers would not receive certification if they were operated manually.

The new software will allow the howitzer to fire a shell every 75 seconds, as opposed to every 11 minutes if the guns were being operated manually.

The live-fire training is the second and final step in the recertification process and is done in three phases. The first phase involves soldiers studying the howitzer manual.

Soldiers are trained individually, then as a team, and then those individual and team skills are brought together for the third and last step of the training exercise. Each phase takes about two weeks to complete, Tran commented.

Because the howitzers had not been used in quite some time, soldiers had to use a 50-foot lanyard to initiate the first fire. The move was primarily a safety precaution. The howitzer could have malfunctioned and blown up with the soldiers in it, if the lanyard was not used for the first fire.

Staff Sergeant Patrick Hunter recently completed the certification process as a section chief. Hunter is in charge of seven soldiers.

” I need to make sure they are doing the right thing,” Hunter said. “I want to make sure they are at the right place at the right time.”

Cross-training is a vital part of the certification process, too.

“Just in case someone goes down, someone can step up,” Hunter said.

Even though he was of higher rank than his soldiers, Hunter said he welcomed their opinions.

“It’s good for them to say, ‘Hey chief’ this is the answer to this and vice versa,” Hunter. said. “So if they have a question, I can give the answer to them.”

It was also the first time Hunter was inside a howitzer. He said the process was exhilarating.

“We shot 10 rounds to certify today,” Hunter said. “I want to go out and shoot 100 more today. That’s the feeling I get.”

Getting the first round out was nerve-wracking for Hunter and his crew, but once that happened, Hunter said he and his crew settled down into a rhythm.

“It’s scary,” Hunter said. “But once we got in there and got in to a fight. It was all worthwhile. It’s all good.”

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