For the first time since 2001, soldiers from the 75th Ranger Regiment are training at the U.S. Army Alaska Northern Warfare Training Center.
The Rangers' return to the facility in Alaska marks an expansion in training opportunities across the Army as it transitions from more than 13 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. As the operational tempo decreases, the Army is able to look beyond training for war and start preparing for the future and the possibility that it may have to fight in the mountains, the jungle, the desert or the city.
In the last year alone, the Army has seen the return of jungle operations training, led by the 25th Infantry Division, and an airborne operation north of the Arctic Circle.
"One of our focuses as we start drawing down in Afghanistan is to push to new environments to train in, so training in the Arctic or extreme cold weather is something we definitely want to look to in the future," said Maj. Jeremiah Hurley, the executive officer for 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment. "That's something across the regiment, whether it be the Arctic tundra or the mountains or deserts, jungles, we continue to look for opportunities to train in all these different environments so we can conduct operations anywhere in the world."
The NWTC is also seeing a higher demand for its specialized training, said Lt. Col. Mark Adams, the center's commandant.
The center trains 1,300 to 1,400 soldiers a year, and in August alone it has trained Rangers, Marines and agents from the FBI, Adams said.
"With the operational tempo going down in Afghanistan and Iraq, we've had more requests for training up here," he said. "We're a relatively small school, so we're looking at our options. We're looking at ways to expand our capabilities, and we're looking at additional classes and courses."
About 160 soldiers from the Ranger Regiment traveled to the training center, which ran two iterations of a one-week course focused on mountaineering skills and land navigation.
It included mountain terrain analysis, cold-weather injury prevention and treatment, land navigation in alpine conditions, rappelling, rock face climbing, high-angle range training, and extended mountain climbing.
The training was to wrap up Sept. 1.
"We were lucky enough to get the opportunity to come up here to Alaska," said Capt. Paul Rothlisberger, commander of A Company, 3rd Battalion. "It offers a unique environment we haven't been able to take advantage of."
The Rangers' goal was to learn more about mountaineering and apply some of the lessons learned to their standard operating procedures, Rothlisberger said.
"Most of our experience in this sort of terrain is directly from combat operations," he said. "What we're allowed to do, by coming up here to train, is be able to focus in a non-combat environment on a different set of skills and capabilities."
The bulk of the training took place at the NWTC's facility in Black Rapids, Alaska.
The facility houses up to 120 trainees at any given time, and it's off the grid, Adams said. The facility generates its own power, and "the only thing coming in is Internet," he said.
The terrain there is mountainous, but there also is a thick underbrush that must be taken into account when planning a patrol, said Capt. Joseph Gardner, platoon leader for 2nd Platoon, A Company, 3rd Battalion.
"A lot of guys discovered just how thick and unforgiving that underbrush can be," he said.
The training re-emphasized the importance of good terrain analysis and association, said Sgt. 1st Class David Mueller, platoon sergeant for 2nd Platoon.
The Rangers also got the chance to operate in elevations of more than 7,000 feet, said Staff Sgt. Stephon Flynn, an instructor at the NWTC.
At that height, the temperature can drop to about 20 degrees, and the wind chill can make it feel like it's below zero, Flynn said.
The Rangers may start the day dressed for 46-degree weather, but the unpredictable and changing weather and terrain force the Rangers to constantly adjust how they dress and how often they hydrate, Mueller said.
"That's something we kind of take for granted in other climates that may be a little more stable," he said. "It's something to take into consideration if we have to go into an environment, especially a hostile environment, so soldiers aren't overheating or becoming hypothermic."
The Rangers also were struck by the sheer magnitude of the terrain they faced.
"Everything's kind of bigger up here in Alaska," Rothlisberger said. "As you start looking at spaces and distances particularly, having come from the East Coast, distances are different. Things are a lot further away than you think they are."
His Rangers have received great training, especially from the NWTC cadre, who are not only mountaineering experts but combat veterans, Rothlisberger said.
"They can really relate the mountaineering and technical aspects of what we're doing and how we can employ that in combat," he said. "That's really why we're here, to be more lethal and capable."¦