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Contra Costa Times March 7, 2003

91st Division in Dublin readies troops for war

By Kiley Russell

Maj. Sean Connolly demonstrates computerized war scenarios he and his fellow 91st Division members use for training at Parks Reserve Forces Training Area in Dublin. The 91st Division has been mobilized to train and support other units for a possible war on Iraq. B

The California National Guard unit was bedded down for the night and totally unprepared for the attack when it came shrieking out of the darkness at 2 a.m.

Convoy security was too light and uncoordinated. Too few soldiers were awake, and they were unable to wake comrades quickly. Equipment designed to give soldiers an edge during night combat wasn't used properly, if at all.

Enemy fighters descended on the transportation company and its military police escort, violently ending their mission to resupply a division miles away.

"The (opposing force) came in and killed every single one of them, dragged them out of their trucks and sleeping bags," said Maj. Shawn Marshall of the 91st Division.

The attack was simulated, and no one was hurt. It was part of training to whip units into shape as war with Iraq looms.

The defeated units, whose identities remain classified, soon regrouped. Officers and men reviewed mistakes and training continued.

"Early and often they were attacked and abused and aggressed ... After that first day or so, they quickly started to shore up some of the gaps," said Master Sgt. Phillip Taves.

By the end of the five-day ordeal, soldiers were able to repel almost 20 attacks in a night without being overrun and were able to successfully complete the mission.

"Their morale and esprit de corps was sky-high," Marshall said.

Taves, Marshall and the others of the Army Reserve's 91st Division are responsible for training Reserve and National Guard units all over the western United States.

They're also responsible for verifying units of all types -- artillery to communications to medical -- can function under the stress of combat.

The division, with brigades in California, Washington and Colorado, was mobilized in January, and its 1,500 women and men have made the transition to full-time soldiers.

It's the first time in 62 years the 91st has been called to active duty, a milestone to be marked today with a military ceremony at Parks Reserve Forces Training Area in Dublin, where the division is based.

"We train units that are mobilized, and we prepare them for the theater before they deploy," said Maj. Gen. Rodney Kobayashi, the 91st's commander.

"We verify that leaders and their units ... are able to meet their mission as they go into the war zone," he said.

Normally, in peace time, the 91st conducts intensive training exercises with specific units once every three years or so. Now, with the Army calling for more soldiers in the run-up to a possible Persian Gulf war, it is training and certifying units at a frantic pace.

"Look at us more like the faculty board that you go through for your master's thesis. We're kind of like the final exam," said division spokesman Sgt. Mike Miles.

Soldiers under the 91st's care work in battlefield conditions and are observed by the division's staff, who make notes on what the unit does well and what it does poorly. Notes can include details about security, uniforms, logistics and communication, Miles said.

Now in active duty, the 91st is also responsible for helping other units through the mobilization process at some of the West's largest military bases.

The division helps soldiers make sure their medical records and shots are in order, and they have proper dog tags and vision inserts for gas masks if needed. The 91st also makes sure soldiers have wills, and their pay and benefits records are in order.

"Our main objective is to validate that they can perform their wartime mission," Kobayashi said.

The mobilization of the 91st marks a relatively new approach to war-fighting readiness by the National Guard and the Army Reserve, said Piers Wood, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and senior fellow at GlobalSecurity.org.

The division is one of five Reserve training divisions nationwide and one of two recently called into active duty. Those divisions were created or recast as training groups after Desert Storm in 1991, when commanders in the regular Army accused National Guard and Army Reserve units of not being in fighting shape, Wood said.

With training divisions able to assess the readiness of their own troops, the Reserve and National Guard are able to counter such criticism as well as provide intensive pre-deployment training.

Training is done all the way up the chain of command to include staff officers at the battalion and brigade level, said Col. Jim Hunt, training and operations officer for the division's 1st Brigade.

"The units coming through here are largely going to Southwest Asia where they will be in a combat zone in the next couple of weeks, most likely," Hunt said.

Hunt's staff is responsible for running officers through battle planning exercises so they develop the ability to think on their feet and manage subordinate officers in a highly chaotic and quickly changing environment.

"In a combat situation, a commander will be overwhelmed with the amount of information coming in. He can't do it all by himself, he has to delegate," Hunt said.

While members of the 91st are themselves getting little sleep and few leisurely meals these days, they know units they prepare for war may well face greater dangers in coming weeks and months.

"It's the least we can do for these soldiers who are potentially going into harm's way," Marshall said.

Reach Kiley Russell at 925-847-2119 or krussell@cctimes.com


Copyright 2003, Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, CA)