TOWNSEND – The valley echoes as shock waves from 25-millimeter rounds reverberate through the Limestone Hills Training Area.
The hour is 1200 on Wednesday, and Alpha Company of the 1-163rd CAB is doing its first live-round training with the latest version of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle. The company is the first in Montana to fire the weapons on the new vehicle.
Each Bradley comes equipped with a 25mm chain gun, a M240c machine gun and wire-commanded TOW missiles.
“I feel honored,” Staff Sgt. Billy Garcia says, as he sits in the commander seat. “We were told we were the first because of our past: We were always good at gunnery.”
The space is barely wide enough to fit a grown man and hardly tall enough for anyone over 6 feet.
Garcia speaks into his headset, commanding the driver to veer left. They had just come upon a wheeled vehicle on their way to the live-round firing area and they were giving the driver ample room to get around the multi-ton vehicle.
The driver of the Bradley has many blind spots, including 20 feet directly in front of him.
The Bradley is operated by three soldiers: a commander, a gunner and a driver. It is designed as a fully armored infantry transport vehicle and can hold up to seven foot soldiers.
There are several latches on the vehicle: one for the driver, one for the gunner, one for the commander and one in the back for the infantry. There is also a ramp in the back for easy loading and unloading.
The Bradley’s design is intended for complete safety. Each operator has his own camera linked to a screen and the infantry in the back have a screen linked to each of the operator’s. The commander can also see what the driver is seeing, as well as the gunner. He also acts as a spotter and operates a third camera independently.
Each camera and screen combination can see thermals and “day TV.” This design eliminates the possibility of the soldiers being exposed to a sniper.
Garcia says the controls and screens look and react very much like a computer game console.
“Some of the younger guys pick up the controls right away,” he said, as he opens the latch up top and puts down the controls.
Garcia and his crew have just arrived at “The Beach.”
“The Beach” is the landing zone for the live-round firing area. It’s at the western edge of the 25,000-acre Limestone Hills Training Area, which is located northwest of Townsend.
The Montana National Guard isn’t the only military outfit to use the training facility. Special forces, such as Navy Seals, have come to the area for the wide-open spaces. It’s a great place because of the close proximity to Canyon Ferry, the Elkhorn Mountains and the Missouri River, Major Tim Crowe said.
At this time, Capt. Michael J. Creeden, commander of the Alpha Company, heads up to the tower, which overlooks the firing range. Each Bradley will do a six- to 12-part operation, in which each part builds on the previous one.
The first part of the operation is shooting while stationary. The gunner fires a 25mm chain round and knocks over a target roughly 500 meters away. He then fires a few more rounds, then switches to the machine gun, with which he practices shooting infantry targets.
After that, the tower and the Bradley commander communicate and discuss their new position. The Bradley moves down a road roughly 200 meters and fires again. Dust around the target billows up before the sound reaches the tower. They fire a couple more rounds.
The next part of the operation is to hit a stationary target while moving. They fire off the 25mm chain gun and then quickly follow it up with the machine gun. Dust, echoes and vibrations fill the basin.
“Having live-fire ability is absolutely amazing,” Creeden said. “It’s absolutely important (for these soldiers).”
Their training mission ends and the Bradley arrives back at “The Beach.” The commander goes through the post-mission checklist and they unload.
As with any piece of machinery, it must be maintained. Away from the beach, closer to Townsend, mechanics take apart the Bradleys and clean all the moving parts. It’s essential each member of the team knows the ins and outs of the multi-million dollar machines.
Before arriving at Limestone Hills, Alpha Company of the 1-163rd CAB had been training with the Bradleys for nearly a year. Located in Billings, the 1-163rd doesn’t have an area in which to fire live rounds, so the opportunity to come to Townsend is a treat.
“Being able to come here for a short amount of time for a broad range of training . (and to) operate with what we own in Montana is awesome,” Creeden said.