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From driving a truck full of explosives through a sandstorm to mastering Microsoft Office, the typical Army reservist must acquire an arsenal of skills before taking to the battlefield.
To ease the training of reservistsÂwho are spread from coast to coast and intermittently called to active dutyÂthe Army this past year created a new Reserve training command to serve as an umbrella training organization for all reservists and built a distributive learning environment.
Lt. Col. Jim Mark, Deputy G6 with the Reserve's former 84th DivisionÂInstitutional Training in Milwaukee, Wis., oversaw the merger of three Reserve academies to create a virtual training system and is now upgrading classroom training systems. When he accepted the challenge in February 2004 to launch the distributed system, Mark was told he had six months to get it ready to train 21,000 Reserve students a year.
Since then, Mark and his team have fielded the system and their division has become the 84th Army Reserve Readiness Training Command (ARRTC).
Now located at Fort McCoy, Wis., the command is a military school and training center that comprises the former training groups of the 84th and a Reserve academy at the fort. ARRTC also oversees Reserve training academies at Fort Dix, N.J., and Fort Lewis, Wis. The new command's mission is to create and maintain a wide spectrum of military courseware and leadership development programs for online classes and classroom training.
What did Mark learn from the consolidation of the Reserve's training programs? "The devil's in the details and the planning," he says. "Being able to sit down and work with your counterparts in a merger is what's really key. Understand that they're not going to like some of the things you like, and you won't like some of the things they like.
"You may not care for some of the people there, and they may not like you either. Ours was theoretically a friendly merger because the military and the chief of the Army Reserve said, 'Go do it.' We're conditioned to say, 'Yes, sir' and make it happen."
Prior to the merger and move to Fort McCoy, the 84th Division had eight brigades in seven states, running about 1,400 computers off of a Reserve-wide area network. The training center at Fort McCoy had a network of about 700 computers.
"This type of centralized training organization did not exist in the Army," Mark says. "We were brand-new, so we had to come up with our own organization, our own procedures. Then we could look at how we handled what equipment both groups had."
As the war in Iraq has made clear, the Reserve is a critical component in any long-term deployment. Its members make up 100 percent of the Army's training and exercise units, medical groups, chemical and internment brigades, judge advocate general unit, railway units and water-supply battalions.
With more than 1 million soldiers available at any time, the Army Reserve makes it possible for the Army to operate more cost-effectively and with fewer active-duty officers, which saves the Army millions of dollars annually. But to ensure that Reserve soldiers are ready for swift deployment demands that they receive training equivalent to their active-duty counterparts.
Before the service created the centralized center at Fort McCoy, training for reservists differed from location to location and at the Army's three Reserve academies. Plus, training tools were not standard and were sometimes outdated.
"The structure and plan is to bring training under one command that puts Reserve soldiers on par with active-duty soldiers," says Sgt. Maj. Robert Vendetti, who assumed command of the Fort McCoy training center in April. "We aim to streamline the program of instruction and shorten the time to bring new training techniques to academies within six months, as opposed to two or three years."
A hurdle during the consolidation was the Army's stricture that the Reserve continue its existing training regimens during the merger. The edict was clear, Mark says: There will be no interruption of current instruction.
"If there was a critical factor, it was that," he says. "We were really four different teaching organizations, each with a separate mission that went right through Sept. 30. But then on Oct. 1, we were one organization teaching under this new command."
When merging four organizations into one, even something as simple as assigning classrooms has to be hammered out. "That shouldn't be a big issue. But there were four different ways to do it, and we had to get it down to one," Mark says.
Systems upkeep was another issue: "I did not receive a lot of funding for maintenance," Mark says. "So we had to stop doing it. If a hard drive failed, we took it offline and we had to keep it that way unless it was under warranty. Thank goodness we had just completed a large field upgrade project the year before because many systems were within warranty and we could get maintenance. But we had to work around some of our older systems if they failed."
There were cultural adjustments as well. Most of the Fort McCoy staff membersÂbefore the arrival of the 84thÂwere civilian employees. But the crew from Milwaukee was mostly military, so the mindset was a little different, Mark says.
"If the folks at the 84th had to work 12 hours to get something done, that was their requirement. Up at Fort McCoy, there were unions, which made that difficult," according to Mark.
The project team held numerous meetings to meld the different philosophies and work procedures of the newly merged group. "The work ethic at both organizations was superb; we just arrived at the same answer in different ways," Mark says.
As an organization that's still growing, Mark and his team expect to receive a number of new Army requirements that will continue to reshape the Reserve training structure. "We know we have further changes coming," he says. "For us, it's just a matter of when. We did what we could in a short time to get the organization up and operational."
There will also be a continued heavy systems focus, Mark says. Fort McCoy has more up-to-date systems than do Fort Dix and Fort LewisÂeven though the three have always had the same mission. To expand the services of the distributed learning environment and standardize classroom training, all three sites need similar systems, he adds.
"I've been spending a lot of time and resources working with the academies at Fort Dix and Fort Lewis so they will be equivalent to Fort McCoy. They didn't have the same automation as the McCoy academy, which had an instructor workstation and an LCD projector in each classroom," Mark says. "Fort McCoy is networked; instructors can go back to a file server and pull their courseware."
Although challenges remain, the Reserve is excited about the potential the new training setup offers the organization and the reservists.
The standardization of training for reservists will be the biggest advantage, according to Vendetti. "Now the academies can look to the 84th as one Army Reserve command for training standards. There's more accountability."
Editor's note: The opinions expressed are those of Lt. Col. Jim Mark, and not those of the Army Reserve.