FORT POLK — Huskies, buffalos and alligators make for surprising bedfellows, but when you’re training for route clearance in Louisiana, you have to expect some surprises.

FORT POLK — Huskies, buffalos and alligators make for surprising bedfellows, but when you’re training for route clearance in Louisiana, you have to expect some surprises.

For members of Fort Polk’s 573rd Clearance Company, 46th Engineer Battalion, a five-day field exercise focused on clearing improvised explosive devices from roadways had its share of unexpected elements — everything from finding live unexploded ordnance requiring the services of the 705th Explosive Ordnance Detachment, to encountering an 8-foot alligator in a pond near the road. You never know what may happen during training, which is a good training device in itself as it teaches soldiers to think on their feet and adapt to changing circumstances — crucial skills for route clearance.

The exercise included three lanes, in day and night iterations, each 3-4 kilometers long, according to 1st Lt. Evan Kaleda, company executive officer. “The first lane is a standard mounted route clearance including detection, interrogation (extracting or uncovering the device) and reduction (blow in place),” said Kaleda. “The second lane is a complex ambush involving the discovery of an IED combined with an enemy attack using small arms and (rocket-propelled grenade) fire and vehicle recovery; and the third lane will require a dismounted patrol to investigate possible weapons caches protected by IEDs.”

There were three 22-man platoons that executed the lanes in six-vehicle patrols. Each patrol included three HMMWVs with M2 .50 caliber machine guns, two Husky MK II Vehicle Mounted Mine Detectors, and one six-wheeled Buffalo Mine Protected Clearance Vehicle. As each platoon travelled down a lane, the gun vehicles provided security as the two huskies, each fitted with two downward-facing detection panels, staggered to the left and right side of the road.

The Buffalo, by far the largest vehicle in the group, was used when a potential IED was discovered. The vehicle’s job is to clear away the dirt, brush or other concealment to verify the item is an IED, then use its 30-foot hydraulic arm and iron claw, sometimes called a “spork,” to scoop up and dispose of the item. The arm is also fitted with a pressurized air hose that easily blows any dirt or gravel out of the way. The Buffalo and Huskies are designed to withstand blasts while protecting the vehicle occupants.

Soldiers also used hand-held detectors and the TALON mine-detecting counter-IED robot during training.

The exercise was a culminating event following classroom and simulated training. For the combat-experienced soldiers, it was a chance to share knowledge and teach the next generation of warriors. For the newcomers, it was a chance to put all their training to use in a hands-on setting.

“This training is awesome,” said Sgt. 1st Class Ming Chiu, operations sergeant, 573rd Clearance Company, one of the exercise facilitators. “It’s the first time some of these soldiers get to practice all the (tactics, techniques and procedures) they learned about.”

To create the most realistic training environment possible, other companies from within the 46th Engineer Battalion provided personnel to simulate an opposing force and support the training while members of Fort Polk’s Counter-IED Integration Cell (CI2C) played a key role in providing observer/coach /trainer oversight.

“We put a lot of effort into this exercise and were fortunate to have the CI2C guys out here to facilitate training,” said Capt. Joshua Mashl, company commander. “This range provides everything we need because of its varying terrain. I’ve seen a lot of improvement (in TTPs) from Day 1 to Day 2, and I know they’ll get even better.”

Fluctuation in terrain is essential for teaching Soldiers how to adapt to changing situations. As a convoy moves from an open field to a densely vegetated valley, assets have to be positioned to dominate the terrain and offer the most security for the platoon.

“The shifts in the terrain allow for a dynamic and ever-changing landscape that platoons have to adapt to, changing tactics as required to suit the need,” said Larry Driscoll, CI2C, who served as an OCT for the exercise. “This range offers that variation for both mounted and dismounted patrols.”

Pfc. Ryan Amalfitano, 3rd Platoon, said the dismounted patrols were the most exciting aspect of training. “Every time we dismount, it gets the adrenaline up. You never know what you’ll come into contact with out there. But we’re reaching a point where we are conducting battle drills pretty flawlessly,” said Amalfitano. “Hands down, we get better and more proficient every day.”

For Spc. Kevin Davis, the terrain presented some challenges, but he knows the experience will ultimately help the platoon.

“When you dismount, you patrol on foot through thick vegetation or have to cross water, and sometimes you’re out in open field where you feel more vulnerable,” he said. “But that helps us downrange because now we’ll have the experience of how to do these patrols and look for (IED) indicators.”

The exercise was also beneficial for a group of Reserve Officer Training Corps cadets embedded with the company. Cadets David Groseclose (Virginia Military Institute), Alexander Anderson (Radford University, Virginia), Jacksubely Ramirez (University of Arizona) and Jenna Branchizio (Henderson State University, Arkansas) got a taste of Army life and combat engineer experience.

“I’ve had the opportunity to be a platoon leader for day and night operations,” said Ramirez about her experience. “I had to maintain communications and make quick decisions, and now I have a general understanding of how to lead and remain flexible in a rapidly changing environment.”

For Anderson, the whole concept of route clearance was interesting. “I have enjoyed learning about the Huskies and Buffalos, and all the different IEDs,” he said. “I’ve also (gained a better understanding of) what platoon leaders do and the concepts they use daily.”

Groseclose, who is considering entering a combat engineer field, said seeing active duty soldiers in action made an impression on him. “Everyone knows what their job is and they know their vehicles,” he said. “The leaders will supervise and refine things a bit, but these soldiers know their roles and equipment well.”