02 August 2009

Combat Outpost (COP) field training
for senior cadets at the
United States Military Academy in West Point, NY.

Cadet Mike Zhou (21) of Forest Hills, NY secures his M240 machine gun in the back of a Humvee during a mounted patrol mission as part of their Combat Outpost (COP) field training at the United States Military Academy in West Point, NY on Wednesday, July 29, 2009. The 5-day COP training exercise is one segment of a three week summer combat leadership training in the field for senior cadets at the academy. Times Herald-Record/CHET GORDON

* Our West Point beat reporter and I spent an overnight out in the field with West Point cadets last week. This was not an easy assignment by any means. Everything in the soldier's basecamp was run in "real time" with active duty Army NCO's and officers casually lobbing loud explosive devices without warning within the barbed-wire encircled, hilltop basecamp, to "simulate" incoming mortar & artillery fire. These Army trainers were all Iraq & Afghanistan combat vets from active duty units and/or faculty at West Point. When the squads of soon-to-be officers headed out on Humvees on mounted & foot patrols, additional IED's (Improvised Explosive Devices) would erupt right at roadside. The instructors would then walk through an impact area to proclaim, "You're dead. Lay down. You've got a massive chest wound. You three over there are dead..." as they pointed out the seriously wounded or killed. Other cadets would then have to scramble into action to treat their wounded, including applying bandages & identifying their dead comrades.
For few moments there it was all kind of eerie when an artillery attack took out about 15 cadets during evening hot chow in the rain. Hearing protection was mandatory ("ear-pro.") and all the cadets wore either wrap around shades or clear wrap-around, lightweight eye googles ("eye-pro"). We were also issued Kevlar helmets, which were to be worn at all times when outside a tent or vehicle. did I mention the near monsoon conditions that first day...? Muddy conditions, explosions & small arms fire with gunpowder in the air made for challenging conditions for me at first. Really limited my shooting opportunities around the COP (Combat Outpost) those first few hours, until nearly 4PM when we finally were able to accompany a squad out of the compound on Humvees. Initially I was hoping to photograph a few of the cadet command leadership as formal portraits out in the field, and even brought along my portable, mini location lighting backpack & a lightstand bag of umbrellas, stands, etc. The continuing downpours put an instant halt to those ideas, as well as the way their hectic week long operation was being run the instructors. We were introduced as "embedded" reporters and locked onto to a few cadets to follow and attempt to tell their stories, both in words and images during our albeit too brief of a stay.

Slideshow tk soon. You can read my colleague's story here. -cg.

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