Thursday, April 12, 2007

Paintballing with the Cav

There's a new batch of photos up on my Flickr page for all to see and revel in.

Fort Knox's 16th Cavalry Regiment was holding a Spur Ride this morning, and my assignment was to go take pictures of whatever it was they were doing. I had a training schedule, a camera, and a notebook, plus the name of the range the troopers were training on.

A call to the Regiment's S-3 shop got me directions to the range. It was out beyond Knox's infamous old marching hills, Misery and Agony, which in days past were used to put basic training privates through ruckmarch hell.

When I got to the range, a staff sergeant in a Cavalry Stetson approached me.

"What's up?"

"I'm with the Turret," I said.

"Ah, okay... you'll need a helmet and a mask."

A Spur Ride is a Cavalry tradition in which new troopers (Cavalry-ese for "soldier") endure two days of gruelling training in order to earn the right to wear spurs. While Cav soldiers these days don't normally ride horses in the line of duty, they're still attached to some of the accoutrements of the Custer-era Cavalry -- the black Stetson and shiny spurs.
Today, the Spur Riders had to make their way through several training events, including an advance up a simulated alley to search for a weapons cache (which everyone in the Army insists on pronouncing "Cashay"). The range lane was nicknamed "Hogan's Alley" -- a narrow roadway between two rows of building fronts. The alley was littered with empty barrels, wooden pallets, and a blown-out pickup truck.

Range cadre had also set up a series of pop-up targets and traps along the course. Pyrotechnic IEDs would explode, covering anyone nearby with a layer of red chalk, for example.

As a captain showed me the way up to a perch at the far end of the alley, we found another trap -- a paintball gun set up in a narrow alleyway and rigged to a motion sensor. We had to cross in front of the sensor to get to the stairs I needed to climb to reach my second-story photographer's perch, which happened to be next to a very loud .50 caliber machine gun simulator.

"Don't worry, everything's off," the captain said.

Not quite confident, I held back as he crossed in front of the sensor. As soon as he was across, the paintball cannon whirred to life and spat about 10 rounds across the alley at about knee level. The paintballs splattered on the opposite doorway, covering it with red goop.

The captain looked back at me.
"Well, I thought they were off," he said.

I looked at him but didn't say anything, then moved through the motion sensor's path as quickly as I could. After he showed me where to set up, he assured me he'd brief the squad coming onto the range not to fire on my particular window. I said I'd definitely appreciate that.

Once I was in position, I realized I was basically at the far end of a shooting range, and that I'd look a lot like a sniper peering out of the left side window with my 200-mm lens. This thought was reinforced as the first squad turned the corner into the alley and the pointman's paintball rifle immediately zeroed on my face.

"DO NOT SHOOT THAT PHOTOGRAPHER!" boomed one of the cadre.

"Thanks," I said to no one in particular.

Still, the troopers couldn't help but aim at me when they saw me moving, and I couldn't help but duck a bit when they did.

Another captain yelled at me from behind the buildings.

"Hey, photographer," he said.
"Yes, sir?"
"Try not to look like a target, okay? Don't duck in and out of the window."
"I'll try not to, sir," I said.

He also advised me to keep my camera in front of my face. Given the choice between taking a blue paintball to the grill and having to explain how an $1,100 camera lens got covered in goo, I wasn't exactly sure what my preference was.

After clearing two buildings on one side of the street, the advancing team ran into an unforseen problem. The truck in the middle of the street was rigged with a simulated IED, and they didn't notice it until it blew up.




The cadre assessed a few casualties.

The .50 cal next to me would periodically let loose with a volley of very loud reports, and the squad below would return fire in its (and my) direction. I didn't get hit, but I did feel the splatter of exploding blue paintballs hit my hands and camera every so often.

Eventually, the team made it through the lane and found the weapons cache, behind the door that had previously been splattered with automatic red paintball goop.


Anyway, that's it for now. Check out the photos and leave some love if you feel like it. It's nice getting out of the office and seeing some real Army stuff going on now and again. With just four months left on my contract, I'm going to try to get as much of this in as possible.