CAMP RIPLEY, Minn. – The future of modern warfare played itself out in the woods of Morrison County.
The lawn mower-like buzz of a Shadow drone was a constant presence overhead. A support crew of more than 100 monitored the goings-on from a couple of miles away with a video feed and images of the combatants as computer-generated figures sent from GPS transmitters. At one point, a machine-gun-toting insurgent wearing a robe and shemagh head gear was dispatched as he emerged from a doorway. At another, the noise of machine gun fire never stopped. A dog barked ferociously. Purple smoke obscured targets.
It was a test of skills in a fighting world full of electronics and real-time monitoring. Over the course of four days this week at the Minnesota National Guard's 53,000-acre training site near Little Falls, 14 National Guard soldiers from seven states shot at targets with their M9 pistols and M4 rifles, navigated through the woods day and night, carried 60-pound packs for 12 miles and rescued decoy fallen comrades from helicopters under fire in what is known as the Best Warrior Competition.
Anyone objecting to the current state of the military-industrial complex would have a field day at this day in the field, what with all the computer monitoring and gadgetry. But participants say the competition is a way to keep sharp in a world where the U.S. is de-escalating its participation in two wars and coming to grips with the realities of a reduced military force.
"This is not just for the soldiers in the field, it's for all of us to be able to use the skills we need to keep up," said Master Sgt. Matthew Pease, who coordinated the monitoring of the competition from a training room in Camp Ripley's new Emergency Management Training Center, described as the "premier integrated emergency management and homeland security training center in the United States."
The camp's venues all have ominously obscure sounding names. Like at the Combined Arms Collective Training Facility, an urban streetscape that has been set up with concrete block houses whose architecture has a vaguely Middle Eastern feel.
As a testament to its versatility, while the Guard soldiers were clearing houses in their competition, a group from the Minnesota State Patrol practiced hostage incidents nearby. Perhaps nowhere else in the state was safer on this day.
At the stress shoot at F Range, competitors elevated their heart rates with a full-out run and were timed as they shot various targets, dragged a dummy the weight of a grown man and breached a door with a shotgun — all under the din of the machine gun fire and the barking dog.
Competition and college
The fresh-faced nature of the competitors can be striking. One of the Minnesota contestants, Sgt. Corbin Routier of East Grand Forks, Minn., completed the competition on Thursday. He is an infantryman with the Bemidji-based 2nd Combined Arms Battalion 136 Infantry, 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team. On Friday the 23-year-old will graduate with a sociology degree from the Minnesota State University, Moorhead.
It is the second year that Routier, who joined the Guard three years ago, has competed. As the National Guard and Reserves are asked to do more, Routier sees the competitions as a cost-effective training tool.
"When you get here, you do it right or you do it wrong; that's the only option," he said. "When you get back to your unit you can make sure other guys do it to standard as well."
Thursday night, Routier and a fellow Minnesotan, Staff Sgt. Michael Walker, a food service specialist with the St. Paul-based Co. E, 2nd Battalion 147th Assault Helicopter Battalion, 134th Brigade Support Battalion, learned they had done it right. They were the winners.
They move on to the national National Guard competition in Little Rock, Ark., in July. The winners represent the National Guard in the Army competition in October.