Tourists arrive in the Black Hills to see Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse, but the unique topography is also drawing military units from throughout the country and around the world for one of the largest National Guard training exercises in the United States.
Here for the Golden Coyote training exercise, military units are working to re-create the stress of combat and mixture of civilian, tourist and wildlife populations soldiers encounter in war theaters such as Iraq and Afghanistan, all while training with foreign soldiers.
Military units from six countries and 17 states — 2,200 soldiers overall — descended on the Black Hills for the two-week Golden Coyote exercise, now in its 28th year. The operation began June 9 and runs until June 23.
Other military bases don’t offer the sort of realism of nearby civilian populations, rough terrain and wildlife that the Black Hills does, according to those involved in the training.
“You’re always in a sterile environment. You’re in this large training environment, but you don’t have civilians,” said Lt. Col. Aaron Jordan, who was helping oversee the two-week exercise. “Here in South Dakota, you got people going about their lives.”
Other training exercises aren’t as large, either.
“This is probably the only National Guard exercise that allows such a large formation of National Guard soldiers to come together in a realistic environment,” Jordan said.
Each individual exercise plays into a wider, two-week scenario, in which terrorist forces are working out of Denver and Minneapolis, seeking to gain control of the region.
Individual exercises range from urban combat to forest and vehicle patrols and include firearms training, medical training and exercises to learn to react to improvised explosive devices.
On Wednesday, two units from Arizona and Missouri played out a scenario win which they patrolled in an enemy village, showing American strength. The soldiers slowly crept through grass and trees toward a ramshackle town, but as they approached the several buildings, combatants opened fire on them with paintball guns.
Paintballs whizzed past soldiers, splattering against the sides of corrugated tin buildings. Soldiers got hit, dropping to the ground to act like casualties as others stormed into the buildings. Soldiers "killed in action" laid in the streets, waiting to be dragged to cover. Yells for suppressing fire pierced the clack of shots fired. Squads advanced from building to building, taking cover behind each edifice.
By the time the paintballs began flying, the action unfolded quickly, and chaos ensued.
“We try to at least replicate the speed of combat. Combat happens very quickly, so things are going to be happening very quickly. They’re going to take casualties,” said Capt. Mitchell Nachtigall, who was overseeing the exercise.
Golden Coyote exercises seek to mimic modern combat theaters, which differ from past ones significantly. Combat environments in Iraq and Afghanistan are much more urban, presenting a host of new dangers for soldiers.
Enemy combatants rain fire on soldiers from windows, and soldiers must clear buildings, fighting in close quarters.
“It’s generally very eye-opening. There’s no real good way to go about it. When you come upon a cit, it’s a really scary situation,” Nachtigall said.
For some of the soldiers, these exercises are the most trying and realistic exposure they have to a combat-like situation. Doe-eyed, they can feel confused and lost, but also pulsing with adrenaline.
“It’s exhilarating, it’s a rush, all the training you’ve done up to this point, culminating in this exercise,” said Sgt. Matthew Beckendorf, who has been in the Guard seven years and deployed to Iraq twice. “You get amped for it.”
For greenhorns, learning how to react to unforeseen situations is especially important.
“You can have the best plan in the world, and it’s not going to go that way. You’re going to have to be able to adapt to what’s in front of you because the enemy’s not going to play into your hands,” Beckendorf said. “Working with that level of stress — that’s not something you can’t just train for, training by yourself.”
The presence of 2,200 soldiers benefit the area not only because of the economic boost soldiers and support staff give to stores and restaurants on their afternoons and days off but also because of the community service projects the military units complete.
Soldiers are hauling timber from the forest to Native American reservations to be used for firewood. Engineers are repairing hazardous wilderness areas and resurfacing decrepit roadways.
Though fewer soldiers overall turned out for the exercise than in past years, one of the largest contingents of international soldiers are here this summer. A full one-third of headquarters personnel are international. Americans and foreign soldiers alike learn how to work with each other the same way they do overseas.
Since they come from the world’s super power, American soldiers often don’t realize how much other military forces can contribute.
“They’re not as aware of us, that there are actually other people out there,” said Sgt. Andrew Lowry, a Canadian soldier who helps run the training exercises. “They are very American-focused, while we’re very multinational.”
A Canadian contingent participates in Golden Coyote nearly every year. They are joined this year by forces from the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark and Suriname. Some of those units were trying out the exercise to see if they would come back in future years.
Working together teaches soldiers they can trust their counterparts from other countries in difficult and trying situations — preparation that will be necessary when they head overseas.
“It’s really just that familiarization. The understanding of the differences in forces, and a lot of it is learning what they can bring to the table,” Nachtigall said.