By C. Todd Lopez
WASHINGTON (March 03, 2017) -- After nine months as the second brigade to deploy to Korea as part of a rotational force, the 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, out of Fort Hood, Texas, found they'd developed a stronger mindset regarding mission readiness -- something they brought home with them to Texas.
Col. John P. DiGiambattista served as the commander of 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team during its nine-month rotation into Korea last year, which lasted from February through the end of October.
The 1st ABCT, with about 4,200 Soldiers, was the second brigade to rotate into Korea to perform a mission focused on, among other things, supporting the Korean/American defense alliance, "making sure we are trained and ready, our equipment was ready to fight, and our Soldiers were prepared," DiGiambattista said.
"In the time I've been in the Army, it was one of the most complex missions I've had to deal with," DiGiambattista said. "Working from our mission to fight decisive action, or be prepared to fight tank-on-tank or infantry soldier-on-infantry soldier, but also, countering weapons of mass destruction as another task, and living and working right there in the Republic of Korea, living among the people.
The brigade's Bradleys had to share roads with civilian vehicles when the BCT went to train, DiGiambattista said. "So our Soldiers had to take some of the lessons we learned in recent conflicts about dealing with culture and people and apply those on our time in Korea."
After they got home to Texas, he said, they brought that experience on the Korean Peninsula home with them -- improving their readiness stateside.
In Korea, the 1st ABCT focused on maintaining its equipment. "We had this 'fight tonight' mindset that really made sure that every night we went to sleep, I knew how many tanks could run and how many artillery pieces could fire," he said. His Soldiers also had that same situational awareness about their unit readiness, he said.
"We brought that back to Fort Hood, and we have been able to maintain our equipment at a higher level because of that experience in Korea," he said. "We are thinking in a different way about how do we make sure things stay working and stay functional."
Even more than equipment readiness, DiGiambattista said, Soldiers were professionally improved as well as a result of their deployment.
"We built squads, platoons, teams that were more proficient, just because of the amount of time they got to spend together and the number of exercises they were able to undertake," DiGiambattista said. "The end result is we developed professional depth, expertise in the formation, that as we come back and redeploy from Korea, we maintained in the brigade -- but also, those leaders that leave, those Soldiers that leave, have more experience."
The U.S. Army has been in Korea for more than 65 years now. The 2nd Infantry Division has been there for 50 years as a permanently stationed presence. But in 2015 its 1st BCT inactivated and the division ID began relying on a rotational BCT.
The 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division was the first unit to participate in the rotational model. It deployed to Korea in the summer of 2015 and served there for nine months.
In February 2016, they rotated out and were replaced by the 1st Cavalry Division's 1st ABCT, a sister unit, led by DiGiambattista.
When DiGiambattista's ABCT rotated out in October of last year, after having served its nine months, the unit was replaced by 1st ABCT, 1st Infantry Division. That ABCT has been in place now on the peninsula for about four months, and will be relieved this summer.
In advance of their Korea rotation, DiGiambattista's ABCT prepared with a rotation at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California.
"In our normal train up, as we went to the National Training Center, we really focused on some skills the brigade would need, from Soldiers through myself, in Korea," he said. "Embedded in that, we did a counter-WMD event. The result of that was that the brigade had worked together to develop the skills, develop an ability to fight a counter-fire fight, and to coordinate our armored battalions together against an enemy."
Once in Korea, he said, his brigade conducted counter-WMD training, emergency readiness exercises, and focused also on development of power projection.
"One of the things we discovered in Korea: we hadn't put U.S. Army tanks on the Korean rail system in a long time," he said. "So on day No. 1, we had people out there with rulers measuring the tanks to make sure they were on those train cars properly. They weigh 70 tons. And it took us quite a while that day to work it out. But what we found is, the next day it moved much faster. And by the third day we were loading equipment, we moved just as fast as we do it anywhere else. And what that brought home to me is: if we don't practice deployment, if we don't practice moving our equipment through and around areas like Seoul or driving on the roads there, we don't perfect the skill."
Recognizing the threat of chemical weapons use from North Korea, DiGiambattista's brigade also practiced on its counter-WMD skills, as they had done at NTC.
"At the brigade level, once a week, we put on all of our equipment for a number of months while we were there," he said. "We also did exercises where we practiced being in that environment, practiced cleaning our vehicles, and then maintaining our chemical detection equipment -- all hazardous-material detection equipment."
For some Soldiers, DiGiambattista said, there were also late nights -- surprise exercises to test their readiness to fight at a moment's notice.
"Sometimes we'd say get all of your equipment ready to alert + four hours," he said. "And that would be essentially making sure we could get our equipment on our vehicles."
One company, he said, got late-night orders as part of an emergency deployment readiness exercise.
"We called them at 2 in the morning," he said. "We said we want you to start walking at 0400 hours. You carry this much weight. You're going to go six miles. At the end you are going to shoot your weapons and we want to see how you qualify, how fast you can walk six miles."
He said the company was able to accomplish the six-mile walk faster than expected -- and that the Soldiers' weapons qualified at a higher rate than what was expected as well.
"To see those Soldiers out there, the company commander making a plan, planning routes, focused on it as a mission, and then able to meet the marks that we expected, was pretty neat," he said. "One of the other things we did was for our tank companies-- more focused on making sure all the systems worked -- we'd have them roll the tanks out about 5 kilometers, and then we would check their maintained status, again to make sure those things functioned, and then our Soldiers had the mentality -- understood what was required to respond if there was some kind of emergency."
The South Korean Army, DiGiambattista said, is highly trained and professional. He said just working with them was a benefit for his brigade.
"For some of our junior leaders who may have been recently deployed to other places, it was really eye-opening and refreshing to work with a professional force that was focused on their own security and driven by their needs," he said. "We did some phenomenal training with them."
Early on in their rotation, the brigade conducted a river crossing over the Imjin River, which crosses the demilitarized zone between North Korea and South Korea. The crossing gave the Americans an opportunity to learn from the Republic of Korea Army.
"For two days, we used U.S. boats and U.S. rafts to build that river crossing," he said. "But the last two days we had the [ROK Army] come in and we used their boats and their bridging equipment. It was a tremendous opportunity for us to understand how they approach the problem -- but also to put our tanks and Bradleys on their equipment on their bridge. And that built some tremendous trust and confidence."
That wasn't the only opportunity, he said, where American Soldiers were able to learn from their ROK counterparts.
"One of the ROK battalions in the [16th Mechanized Infantry Brigade] planned a week of training," he said. "They took one of our infantry companies and embedded it in their battalion training. That's the first time that we know of that happened: that instead of the U.S. leading training, the ROK Army led that training. And it was another great experience. They had some unique training facilities that we had access to because we were training with them, and really got to understand how they approach that fight. And those junior leaders learned a great deal."
Overall, DiGiambattista said, his brigade learned a lot in Korea -- and took a lot home.
"We called it 'moving to mastery,'" he said. "We got a lot more opportunities to exercise our craft. Whether that was working with the Korean army, the Korean local people, or local Korean government, practicing our decisive action missions, firing live weapons and training in Korea, or practicing even moving non-combatants out of the country. All of those things made us better at our job. And we built readiness, and sustained our proficiency while we were there."