Octavious Deshon Lakes grew up in Buford, Georgia, and knew before he even graduated from Forest Park High School that we wanted to join the U.S. Army and serve his country. “Tay”, as his friends called him, was a fitness enthusiast who’s big life goal was to one day open a gym with his fiancé Mabinty. But, handling his goals in proper order, Tay enlisted in the U.S. Army in March of 2017 and was assigned to Fort Hood as a Combat Engineer in the 3rd Brigade. That same brigade was sent to Fort Irwin, home of the National Training Center, in January of this year to participate in the force-on-force training critical to the prowess and might of our armed forces. During this exercise, in the darkness of the desert on January 14th, the Bradley he was traveling in rolled over.
Octavious Deshon Lakes was killed in that accident. He died that night in The Box.
Having now lived in a military town for over 25 years, I’ve continuously heard of Fort Irwin and NTC, or the National Training Center, but have always been unsure of its purpose. From the limited information I had, NTC was 1) in the desert, 2) a horrible place to be sent to, and 3) an even more horrible place to be stationed at. My knowledge of this base would never have improved had I not been invited to join in on a trip sponsored by the Greater Killeen Chamber of Commerce and the Heart of Texas Defense Alliance, wherein a dozen local community leaders are taken to Fort Irwin for a tour of the facility during the warfighter exercises that regularly occur there. While Fort Hood is one of about a dozen bases around the nation that send their armored brigades to NTC to train, we are the only community in the nation that sends civilians to observe and visit. This trip happens once or twice a year, specifically while an armored brigade from Fort Hood is there to experience force-on-force combat. (Sidebar: this trip is paid for by each visitor and is not a pleasure cruise by any means. Should you go, don’t wear your best shoes).
Fort Irwin is a small, desolate-looking Army base located in the Southern California desert, north of Barstow along a 37 mile stretch of road commonly referred to as the “trail of tears.” While the base itself isn’t very big, the training area is quite the opposite, covering an area of land larger than Rhode Island. Fort Hood can fit inside that area, known as The Box, four times over. Aside from being large, imposing, and in the middle of nowhere, the most formidable characteristic of NTC has nothing to do with the geography, it’s the challenge that awaits the visitors who come to train. NTC is the home of Blackhorse.
From what I gathered over the two days of traveling and touring the base, here’s a summary of the purpose of NTC (and please, my military friends, forgive me if I’m wrong here): join the Army, get assigned to an armored brigade at one of a dozen bases in the US that have armored brigades. At that base you will learn to drive and shoot. You will be taught how to operate the machinery. NTC is where they send you to learn how to fight with it. NTC is where you go to become skilled at using the equipment for its designated purpose, to kill people and destroy property. It’s where you learn how to survive a real battle with a real enemy. And at NTC, that enemy is Blackhorse.
Blackhorse is the armored brigade assigned to Fort Irwin. They live there and train there all year round, either as Russians, Chinese, or North Korean fighters. They train so much and so thoroughly that even a visiting Russian General in years past was quoted as saying “they make good Russians.” They have homefield advantage, they can navigate the desert with ease, and they are relentless. Their job is simple: crush the visiting force. It is said that if Blackhorse loses, the Army loses. It has happened in the past, but to label it a rare occurrence is an exaggeration. You beat Blackhorse and you become a legend, but Godspeed in your quest.
NTC is all about learning to become a better leader, a better strategist, and a better fighter. Brigade Commanders are put to the test, only being given a general assignment to either defend or attack a certain “city” in The Box. You’re told what to do, but not how to do it. You have to act on your own instincts and attempt to respond to an entrenched and merciless opponent whose sole mission is to destroy you, your men, your equipment, and your resolve.
No training experience would be complete without a thorough review of the action and decisions made. This is where The Vultures come into play. The Vultures are the group at Fort Irwin tasked with recording everything that goes on. With thousands of cameras and microphones scattered all over the base and throughout the simulated cities in the desert, The Vultures watch, listen, and record every movement in The Box. Their slogan, “nowhere to hide”, truly describes their ability to monitor your every move during the warfighter exercise. They also run the sound equipment and smell generators on the base. Due to their efforts, troops engaged in battle will hear babies cry and people arguing while they smell anything from fresh bread to decaying human flesh.
The Vultures send their data to the Star Wars Room, a high-security building back at the base with wall-to-wall video screens and an ocean of computer monitors, watching every movement, every shot, and every kill during the exercise. (Sidebar: this room is top secret and high security, so don’t pull out your iphone and take pictures. That would be really dumb. Found that one out the hard way). Once complete, Brigade Commanders and their teams sit through the AAR (After Action Review), where the entire battle is replayed and analyzed to determine where mistakes were made and how to improve. Battles such as these take place every day for about ten days, and AAR’s take place after each one. It’s a tough ten days for all of those involved.
Once the force-on-force training is complete, the equipment is retrofitted from simulated rounds to the real deal, and for the next four days the Army’s most massive live-fire exercise takes place, all under the guidance and orchestration of The Dragons. Led by America’s most talented weapons experts and true heroes of the Nation, The Dragons
have forgotten more about this country’s weapon systems than you or I will ever know. We didn’t get to see that happen, but I’m sure it was majestic.
Our group arrived on a Saturday night and were up bright and early on Sunday to tour The Box and observe the warfighter exercise in real time. Originally the plans were to ride around in four Humvees, but at the last minute we were upgraded to a pair of Blackhawk helicopters. As an additional plus, the choppers were flown by combat pilots, so low-level flying, banking hard around the mountains, and doors open were the order of the day. (Sidebar: if you ever ride in a Blackhawk with the doors open, do NOT sit in the right rear seat. Just take my word for it).
Our group was escorted by Brigadier General Christopher Norrie, the 1st Cav Deputy Commanding General. I kept referring to him as “sir”, he kept telling me to call him Chris. While this man was a wealth of information about NTC (a former COG at Fort Irwin) and a true armored brigade enthusiast, he was also incredibly approachable and genuine in his passion for this country and our armed forces. From Privates to Colonels, he would be met with a salute and follow it with a handshake and a sincere “thank you” to all those under his command. This man alone gave me a renewed appreciation for everything our servicemen and women do. He also volunteered to sit in the right rear seat. A true hero.
We visited the entire post in one day, stopping first to visit with Major General Paul T. Calvert, Commanding General of 1st Cav, at an observation post over the city of Razish. From there we watched as Blackhorse outmaneuvered a brigade from Fort Hood, leaving their equipment with lights flashing, indicating that they were hit and destroyed. From there we flew to a TOC (Tactical Operations Center, or temporary base camp) for Blackhorse, then on to the Star Wars room and back to the observation point to meet The Vultures and enjoy a lunch of MRE’s (Sidebar: I opted for the meatballs. Can’t say it was bad, but I was still tasting it 36 hours later), then on to the north side of The Box to meet The Dragons at their lair.
Towards the end of the day we were on foot in Razish, walking through buildings and down into tunnels, dirty and exhausted. A call came in to advise that there would be a short ceremony for Spc. Octavious Lakes, the Fort Hood soldier who had died just a couple of days prior to our arrival. Brigadier General Norrie spoke to the whole base over his radio thanking all listening for their service and their sacrifice. Rod from the Star Wars room said, “this one’s for you, kid.” Then, in that moment the entire base went completely silent. Every tank and vehicle, every person. Radios were left with the channel open to project the deafening quiet of the airwaves. We could hear ourselves breathing. The silence was cut by a growing, ominous thunder from the west as four F-15 fighters streaked over the base, directly over our heads at a height of 200 feet. The thrusting roar of the Pratt & Whitney engines shook me to my bones as the fighters went into a vertical climb directly overhead, afterburners shreaking through the ascent. As the fighters disappeared towards the stratosphere the silence returned and held for a minute longer.
Tay is not the first soldier to die at NTC, nor will he be the last. The battlefield at NTC is as close to the real thing as our troops can get, which is a necessity for force readiness. While training accidents are endemic to every branch of the military, it will never be something that doesn’t deeply affect all those involved, from Tay’s Army buddies to his highest-level commanding officers. The work being done here at NTC has world-wide ramifications and working that closely with this type of equipment isn’t an easy task. On our final flight back to base I’ll never forget Brigadier General Norrie speaking to us over the headsets. His words closing out the day perfectly encapsulated everything we had experienced in the last 24 hours: “Airborne is great. An Airborne unit is perfect if you need to take out a target or win a battle. But, if you want to change the course of history, if you want to break the spine of a country, if you want to strike fear into the hearts of your enemy you send in an armored brigade.” Those armored brigades train at NTC and can’t get that level of training anywhere else in the world.
Thank you to The Greater Killeen Chamber of Commerce, The Heart of Texas Defense Alliance, to General Norrie, and the U.S. Army for hosting such an amazing trip. And thanks to all of our armed forces personnel for the daily sacrifices they make and for putting their lives on the line to keep us free.