Reserve and Regular soldiers from 3rd Battalion The Royal Welsh and 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh are taking part in Exercise Northern Strike in Michigan in the United States.
The soldiers are part of the large-scale integrated joint-fires exercise near Camp Grayling, which is being led by the Michigan US National Guard and involves nearly 7,000 troops from 20 American states and six other countries - the UK, Latvia, the Netherlands, Bulgaria, Estonia and Jordan.
This is the main annual exercise for 3 R Welsh, who have deployed two platoons in Michigan alongside a Regular platoon from 1 R Welsh. Their barometer for success has been their fluidity of movement together, echeloning through war-fighting scenarios on platoon and company attacks, all in tandem with joint-fire air support from the US.
The aviation lifts are always a great experience and for anyone who’s sat under the downdraft of a Black Hawk or a Chinook, it’s very retention positive Lt Col Ged Murphy
Lieutenant Colonel Ged Murphy, Commanding Officer 3 R Welsh, said: "For the United States it’s a massive event and for us as a British Army sub unit with a company of soldiers it’s a great opportunity to work within such a wider context. For me, the overarching objective, amongst all the other training objectives, has been to provide both our Reserve and Regular soldiers, here as a combined company, some enduring professional memories that will sustain them for their careers. They’ve been able to relish so many things. The aviation lifts are always a great experience and for anyone who’s sat under the downdraft of a Black Hawk or a Chinook, it’s very retention positive."
Exercise Northern Strike is the most complex US National Guard test of its kind in the country in terms of testing basic military skill sets, aviation manoeuvrability and integration with international troops.
The Royal Welsh have enjoyed extensive close-air support with helicopter insertions by Black Hawk helicopters and Chinooks, lifting and dropping them into battle scenarios on the ground. They have also enjoyed a rare opportunity to conduct a live-fire shoot house urban operation.
Lt Col Murphy said: "I think everyone who joins the Army wants to be challenged and tested in demanding environments and all our soldiers, Reserve and Regular, have experienced a number of days in the field, more than is usual.
"They’ve had to learn to adapt, learn to look after themselves and to some degree survive and I think they’re all coming away better soldiers and happier soldiers and that, obviously, makes me happy. I’m very comfortable my Reserve soldiers can attach themselves to a battalion battlegroup or any other combat battlegroup.
"In my time with 3 R Welsh I’ve always had great faith that the battalion could generate the kind of capability and numbers that could support battlegroup operations on war fighting roles. This was demonstrated last year on an exercise on Salisbury Plain and they’ve demonstrated it again this year in a very complex situation again, here in Michigan with our National Guard colleagues.
"I’ve absolutely no doubt that our Reservists are highly capable and ready to support our Regulars, particularly in a coalition-type operation. I’ve worked with our US colleagues many times but for the soldiers on this exercise it’ll be a first. It’s good to see soldiers from both nations naturally coming together, enjoying each other’s cultural differences, celebrating them and recognising all the similarities and the challenges they face. This has been very much been a strengthening experience when and if we ever come to have to operate together."
Camp Grayling is the largest National Guard training centre in the US, spanning three counties and is not far from double the size of Salisbury Plain Training Area.
Exercise Northern Strike is the extensive military exercise of its kind with all five branches of the US military involved - Coast Guard, Air Force, Army, Marines, and Navy. However, a measure of the success of the exercise is how effective it brings in coalition forces, including platoons from the British Army.
Reservist, Lance Corporal Ceiron Edwards, 23, a learning support worker from Wrexham, said: “Mounting onto Black Hawk helicopters and getting dropped into different locations is pretty new to most of the lads and even some of the Regulars haven’t been on helicopters before. Going down the ranges with live rounds instead of blanks is also new, so that’s what we relish.
“I’ve not been a Lance Corporal for long and it’s a big learning curve, but we’re learning on the ground. We’ve looked at their kit and it’s a lot different to ours so there’s lots that we’re learning and getting to know how other armies operate.
“Their Americans’ individual weapon systems, for example, are a lot lighter. They have loads of assets also and even if you just look at their National Guard, it’s as big as our Regular force. You can see the mutual respect that we have for each other. As soon as we get onto the choppers, the door gunners turn around and they're tapping our shoulders and ripping off their patches and throwing them to us. But it’s been good to show our capability as Reservists so if our sister battalion, the 1st Battalion, go out on tour they can be confident we can backfill the spots with lads who know what they’re doing.”
Ceiron works for Priory College, an independent specialist day college, in North Wales supporting students with Asperger’s Syndrome and autism.
Being in the Reserves has widened my skill set LCpl Ceiron Edwards
“Being in the Reserves has widened my skill set and I used to go into interviews for civvy jobs a nervous wreck, but I find my confidence is now very high, being around the lads all the time, the banter.”
Ceiron, who used to work on building sites, said he wanted more of a 9 to 5 working pattern that would also balance his Reservist career.
“Both jobs are very rewarding and my employers give me great support to pursue my Army career.”
Lieutenant Aled Smith, 26, from Tenby, has been a Regular platoon commander with 1 R Welsh for 12 months
“It’s a completely new situation for us and speaking to the American platoon commanders, or troop commanders as they’re called, their amount of assaults and weights of firepower is on a much bigger scale. It’s all about integrating with our partners and also ensuring cohesion between Regular and Reserve soldiers.
“The guys love this sort of stuff because it’s not the norm. Coming out here to work with the Michigan National Guard will be the first time they’ve left the UK, so it’s an exciting opportunity. It’ll be the first time some of us have been heli lifted into an company attack on an urban village, so it’s all new. The heat has to be taken into account and for us coming out here where it’s been getting up to 35 degrees, with an 85 per cent humidity factor, so it’s about getting used to that and tailoring your training around it.”
Captain Jason Everts, the US National Guard joint manoeuvres officer, said: "The days have been long but they’ve been doing their dry crawl, walk, run, going through the proper gates all the way up to live fires to what we call the Superbowl, the CALFEX (combined arms live firing exercise). Working with the Royal Welsh has been great and we really enjoy the interoperable aspect of it - the integration of a NATO partner is intangible and interaction with different cultures is always enjoyable. Our facilities here at Camp Grayling are of huge benefit to our coalition partners and they get a lot of it. The British Army units, and the Royal Welsh for this exercise, have always been professional and we look forward to working with them and I’m sure they’ll be back."