Gary White tried joining the Army out of high school but was turned away at the Military Entrance Processing Station because his feet seemed too flat.
While that might have detoured his military career for a few years, it didn’t stop 1st Sgt. Gary White, 1st Battalion, 320th Field Artillery Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), from becoming a Soldier.
White arrived at Fort Campbell in September 2019 and recently returned from his seventh rotation at the Joint Readiness Training Center-Fort Polk, Louisiana.
Since his first JRTC rotation in 2007, White has seen many changes. This year was certainly no different with the added challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to wear face masks and practice social distancing as much as possible.
But the experience he gained there – and importantly the experience his Soldiers gained – made it worth all the sweat, dirt and stress of intense action in blazing summer temperatures.
If it were not hard, it wouldn’t have felt realistic.
“It’s as close to real as we can get without actually going to war somewhere,” White said. “Everyone from the lowest private to the highest-ranking person in the brigade leaves with a bunch of valuable lessons learned to put in their hip pocket and carry forward as they continue their career. You definitely learn what you’re made of down there.”
His role at JRTC has changed with every rotation and helped him to grow as a leader, White said. He has been a radio telephone operator, a howitzer gunner, a howitzer section chief, an assistant operations sergeant, a platoon sergeant and now a first sergeant.
And it all began with a second talk to an Army recruiter in 2003.
From dead ends to new beginnings
White said he thought his goal of a military career died in 2000 when he was rejected “for having flat feet of all things,” but in 2003 his course took a dramatic shift.
“In 2003, I was working a menial, dead-end job when a recruiter came through and asked me if I’d ever considered joining the military,” White said. “I told him I had been disqualified. He handed me his card and said, ‘Didn’t you hear there is a war going on?’ So, that day I went down to the recruiting station to start the process and I officially joined the Army 19 February 2004.”
White was accepted for duty after his feet were examined again and went to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, for one station unit training and graduated June 2004.
“My first duty station was with 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division in Giessen, Germany,” he said.
During his three years there, White did two training rotations at the Joint-Multinational Readiness Center at Hohenfels, Germany. He was a howitzer driver during one of the training missions and a cannoneer during the second.
After Germany, he was stationed at Fort Campbell with B Battery, 4th Battalion, 320th Field Artillery Regiment in what was then 4th Brigade Combat Team.
“I did five years with them and four rotations with JRTC during that timeframe,” White said.
Those rotations were in 2007, two in 2009, and in 2012.
After a permanent change of station to Fort Stewart, Georgia, in 2012, White did two more rotations to JRTC as part of 4th Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division in 2013 and 2015.
The most recent rotation came after returning to Fort Campbell and ended earlier this month.
“The bottom line is they are trying to simulate what it would actually be like for us in wartime,” White said.
That preparation for the JRTC rotation started more than a month ahead of time by training for the mission and ensuring all equipment they would need went with them. Unlike training done at Fort Campbell, if equipment is forgotten no one can easily retrieve it, but they would have to simulate ordering it from a foreign country.
“It’s a lot more than the month we spend down there,” White said. “There is at least a month of preparation that goes on at home station. A lot of stuff goes into it before we even touch foot in Louisiana.”
The training in Fort Polk covers several phases of an operation.
“When we got there, we initially had two days where we were primarily focused on getting our vehicles off the barge, recovering all of our mission-essential equipment from our containers and getting our feet under us,” White said.
For the next seven or eight days they were in a tactical assembly area with simulated forces in a notionally friendly country just across from the border of the training area that simulates a country where they would fight.
After crossing into the training area, Strike Soldiers established a position area artillery to establish artillery firing capability to fire the howitzers.
The live-fire training phase meant two weeks of force-on-force live-fire and 10 days of fighting “Geronimo,” the notional enemy.
Those notional enemies are seasoned Soldiers and personnel stationed at Fort Polk and include Airborne infantry and attachments from across the Army.
White said the training builds readiness and resilience, while exposing Soldiers to conditions they may face in battle.
Changes at JRTC
The most obvious outward change this year were probably the masks Soldiers were required to wear throughout their training, despite the heat and humidity, to reduce the chance of spreading COVID-19.
At least twice a day there were screenings and Soldiers were questioned about whether they felt possible symptoms. Infrared thermometers were used to take temperatures safely.
“The mask wear was a friction point because by the nature of our job we are in close proximity to one another, nearly 24/7,” White said. “When we’re conducting a fire mission, we’re shoulder-to-shoulder, so wearing the masks when coupled with the environmental conditions down there – high humidity, high heat – was difficult but definitely achievable. It was just an added stressor for all the personnel in the battery.”
Although masks are worn during training at Fort Campbell, it was more difficult in the conditions at JRTC, he said. It required adapting.
“In previous rotations, we’ve had to wear our chemical protective masks but that’s usually only for a number of hours at a time as opposed to 30 days,” White said. “If the pandemic continues, or heaven forbid, another one pops off someday, somehow, at least having people with that institutional knowledge of ‘Hey this is a preventative measure we can take to increase the health of the force or decrease risk to the force,’ that’s definitely something good for everyone to have.”
The Army, he said, regardless of what is going on in the world is going to be ready to project power forward against the nation’s enemies.
“Whether we have to wear face masks or get tested for a virus or execute in a time of pandemic, our job is to win our nations wars and something as simple as a virus, or as complex as a virus, is not going to stop us from training to execute that mission,” White said.
Looking back and forward
White has been on three combat deployments – one to Iraq and two to Afghanistan. He knows how much live-fire training like that at JRTC helped him ready for war.
“My first deployment was a Global War on Terrorism deployment where we conducted Force Protection and personal security for our brigade deputy commanding officer,” White said. “My last two deployments to Afghanistan were as an artilleryman, where we shot over 6,000 rounds in support of maneuver and Special Operations Forces in Regional Command South and Regional Command East.”
He said JRTC especially reinforces important lessons that reinforce readiness.
“If you haven’t trained, you are not going to execute it when you are stressed in a combat type situation,” White said. “The nearer we can get to realism in the training, the better we are going to react when faced with a situation in combat … It gives you muscle memory when the stress is on and bullets are flying, and rockets are coming into your position.”
Combat training centers have made White a better Soldier and better prepared him to execute his wartime mission, he said. That is exactly what he wants for the Soldiers he leads.
White has seen a shift over years in the training environment at JRTC and elsewhere.
“There’s obviously been a much larger focus put on decisive action training environment rotations as opposed to GWOT with the drawdown in Afghanistan and Iraq and the chief staff of the Army saying they anticipate the next fight will be a near peer adversary,” White said. “They have definitely switched – at least for artillery – our focus significantly over the course of the years.”
The training also has made him a better leader, he said, which is more important to him than any accolades he may receive.
“It’s been a tremendous asset,” White said. “It’s interesting, you spend all of your time at home station without a whole lot of outside looks. I mean, you do your qualifications with people from other platoons or batteries observing you and giving you their observations of what you’ve done, what you can improve upon but they’re all coming from the same background as you. They all have the same training at home station.”
Getting advice from professionals who run JRTC and see Soldiers year-round, gives another perspective on how to make improvements.
“It’s really refreshing to have an observer-controller down there at JRTC who sees 10 or 11 rotations of your unit type per year come through and they do best practices from across the Army, not just from across the battalion,” White said. “As long as you go into it with an open mindset and are willing to change the way you do business a little bit, you’re going to come out better than when you go in 10 times out of 10.”