If you want to know about the Stryker infantry carrier vehicle, ask SFC Ramon Hernandez. He’s been platoon sergeant of 3rd Platoon, Company A, 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry (A/5-20 Infantry) for the past three years. As such, he’s been on point for development of the interim brigade combat teams -- now called the Stryker brigade combat teams (SBCTs) -- since Army Transformation was launched and long before any high-speed gear arrived.
"We started out with Humvees and honked the horn to simulate fire from a .50-caliber machine gun: a beep, beep, you’re dead situation," SFC Hernandez recalled, sitting inside a brand-new Stryker at the National Training Center (NTC), Fort Irwin, Calif.
A/5-20 Infantry was the first unit to receive Strykers as part of the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, based at Fort Lewis, Wash., which is being transformed into the Army’s first SBCT. The first 14 production Stryker vehicles were delivered to Company A only weeks before the unit was deployed to NTC to participate in the Army’s portion of joint experiment Millennium Challenge 2002 (MC02), landing in the middle of the spotlight as the Army’s first Stryker-equipped company and paving the way for the others.
"Being a light fighter, it’s been a unique experience to embrace a whole different doctrine -- the vehicle piece. You don’t hump as much, but you have to get smart real quick," SFC Hernandez explained. "We started out attacking as if we had tanks, but when we went from Humvees to the Canadian LAVs (light armored vehicles), we started getting smarter and got the support-by-fire piece together. Now, with the Strykers, we still employ the vehicle in the support-by-fire role, and I don’t see it being anything other than that," he said.
"The FBCB2 (Force XXI battle command brigade and below system) is a wonder," SFC Hernandez added, pointing to one of the screens at the forward end of the crew compartment. "We navigate and get information using FBCB2. It can track the enemy and find different avenues of approach -- showing us how to approach using low ground, for example -- and we use it a lot in planning."
He said the Stryker allows soldiers to fight faster and get closer to the objective. "We can maneuver the vehicle behind cover, drop the ramp, get soldiers out safe and then move toward the objective. It’s been a great way to get soldiers to the fight fresh and ready to go instead of humping miles to get there," SFC Hernandez said. "We usually split the platoon. I take my wingman, and the PL (platoon leader) takes his wingman. When we dismount, I have the option of staying with the vehicle or downloading. In my opinion, the platoon sergeant is better off dismounting. Part of that is because I really want to get my vehicle crews to feel that they are part of the fight, not just drivers. I want them to listen to radio, see how the battle is going and maneuver the vehicle to where it can do the most good on their own initiative," he said.
"My drivers -- 19-, 20-, 21-year-olds for the most part -- are responsible for an important piece of this whole effort. They work 24 hours a day, and there’s not a whine out of them. It really makes me proud of those kids," SFC Hernandez noted.
Outside focus has been on the SBCT equipment, especially the Stryker vehicles. Many people tend to forget that soldiers make those vehicles work, ride in them, tell jokes in them, store their snacks in them, eat and sleep in them and do their laundry on their ramps, and those soldiers, ultimately, are the ones who will live or die by them. So far, they like the Stryker. Sure, there have been a few bugs to work out of the system, but that’s small stuff. The big things are that it moves fast, far, quietly and comfortably.
Kicking off its first battle with the NTC opposing force, for example, Company A was ordered to make almost a full circle around NTC’s central Tiefort Mountain and then swing down a valley for a night approach to the objective. It was a tactical movement of about 130 kilometers, which took up to six or seven hours.
It didn’t make much operational sense to the observer-controllers (OCs) following along in the dust kicked up by the Strykers, but it made a lot of sense if you are looking at the bigger picture and want to stretch the operational legs of a Stryker company in a fairly confined battle space. MC02, after all, was an experiment, not an exercise.
Another key capability tested during MC02 was the Stryker’s air transportability, both strategically and tactically. The company’s vehicles were airlifted from Washington state to California on C-17 transports, and a platoon’s worth of Strykers then were cross-loaded to C-130s for tactical deployment to NTC. They landed and deployed on the hard-packed sand of Bicycle Lake. Toward the end of the experiment, another Stryker platoon loaded onto C-130s for transport to another training area to work with Marine forces. Both movements came off without a hitch. Strykers rolled down the ramps and were brought into battle configuration -- which means remounting antennas and vehicle weapon systems, raising suspensions, strapping rucksacks outside the vehicles and the like -- in about 15 minutes. At the close of MC02, the A/5-20 Infantry’s Strykers and support vehicles were redeployed to Seattle by sea aboard the Army-Navy experimental vessel Joint Venture.
In another important display of air transportability, Strykers were later flown to Andrews Air Force Base, Md., for a VIP demonstration staged for congressional representatives, defense leaders and the press. The battle reconfiguration was done in pouring rain in less than 10 minutes.
Soldiers of the 5-20 Infantry have not only been on point for Stryker development, they have been given the lead in the public relations effort to prove the Stryker’s capabilities, staging demonstrations, manning static displays, answering questions and offering their opinions to the public and high-ranking people who can influence or determine the future of the Stryker vehicle and the SBCTs. The soldiers have adapted well and performed well in this capacity, although politics and formality are unfamiliar ground for most of them.
The spotlight, pressure and hard work involved with being the Army’s first Stryker company generally inspires soldiers of A/5-20 Infantry. Sitting on the ramp of his Stryker, the company commander, Capt. Brandon Tegtmeier, said, "I’ll take the pain any day to be the first guy to have these vehicles." As one of his soldiers, Spc. Luis Virgen, put it, "We’re ready to show the world what these vehicles can do."