HOHENFELS, Germany -- NFL teams use practice squads to act as an opposing team to help their starting lineup prepare for the next week's game. Broadway shows use preview performances in front of live audiences to work out the kinks before the show's opening night.
The Army uses Opposing Forces personnel as a sort of combination of the two. OPFOR personnel are trained to accurately emulate future enemies, to not only add realism to training but to also gain feedback and insight during training exercises.
Here at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center, the 1st Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment provides OPFOR assets to units that deploy to Hohenfels for training exercises. The 1-4 Infantry is unlike most other infantry battalions in that their primary mission is to act as OPFOR. They often use different tactics, vehicles and weapons and even wear a different duty uniform than other infantrymen. All of these measures help to enhance training realism and provide useful lessons to training units on how to fight a particular enemy.
Pfc. Yidi Yu (left) and Pfc. Nicholas Caple, both riflemen with A Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Infantry regiment, defend a rooftop against Czech soldiers while playing the Opposing Forces during a simulated training exercise as a part of Allied Spirit II at Hohenfels Training Area, Aug. 8. The 1-4's primary mission is to provide Joint Multinational Readiness Center with OPFOR assets during the many training rotations that come through Hohenfels. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Jerry Boffen, 130th Public Affairs Detachment, Connecticut National Guard)
Spc. Tony Kroncich, a rifleman with the 1-4's A Company, explained the variety of their operations and how they've changed in the two years he's been here.
"We used to focus more on insurgent operations," the 23-year-old Marquette, Michigan, native said. "We were running around in civilian clothes with Jeeps and AK-47s planting [Improvised Explosive Devices]. It was more unconventional warfare."
Kroncich explained that the mission has shifted recently to meet the training needs of the units coming through Hohenfels.
"We've moved to more conventional warfare," he said. "We're doing at least three mounted operations rotations a year now. It was not at all what I expected. We basically turned into a tanker company."
For the mounted operations exercises, the 1-4 Soldiers use retired M113 Armored Personnel Carriers fitted with M3 Bradley turrets to engage the mechanized units that come here to train. This means they not only get additional training by operating the M113s but also on the maintenance of the vehicles.
"Our primary focus is to facilitate the units coming here," Kroncich said. "That means having enough vehicles ready to support their training. Part of that is constant vehicle maintenance. Sometimes it feels like we're always working on vehicles or fixing something."
In addition to all of these OPFOR mission requirements, the 1-4 Soldiers must stay just as proficient in their infantry skills as any other infantry unit. This leads to somewhat unique training scenarios and keeps the 1-4 quite busy, often for fairly long stretches of time.
Spc. Austin Bickley, also an infantryman with A Company and a native of Marblehead, Ohio, said that they'll often use U.S. Army tactics while acting as OPFOR, especially with the recent move to more conventional warfare. The 21-year-old also said that they utilize the time between rotations to fit in their own training.
"All of the tactics we use during the conventional warfare exercise are straight out of our field manuals," he said. "We'll work our battle drills into it too when we're engaging the training units as OPFOR."
"We do a lot of it between rotations too, though," he added. "Since we have so many rotations now it's more of, OK now you do all of your training, [Expert Infantry Badge] tryouts, all of that stuff and then it's right back into rotations."
The current amount of rotations leads to a relatively high operations tempo, which means the Soldiers need to find ways to decompress between rotations and then get their minds back into training. Bickley and Kroncich agreed that due to the relatively high optempo it probably takes 1-4 Soldiers a little more to get back into the mindset than most other units.
"We do three or four months straight through sometimes with little or no time off," Bickley said. "We go through the rotations, have a few weeks or a month off and then get back at it. Taking block leave between the rotations is definitely a saving point."
"I'll usually use the first week to just relax, maybe play some video games or just spend time with my wife," he added. "We like to cookout or travel around Europe. My wife Kayla and I just went to Naples, Italy. That was great. Being stationed here in Europe makes it so easy to travel around and see places we wouldn't get to go if we were in the states."
Kroncich said he and his wife Jessi also like to travel Europe. His real passion, though, is training his two German Shepherds, Dominic and Drako. His goal is to get them Schutzhund trained, which includes tracking, obedience and protection work, and to get them certified for breeding.
"There's a first sergeant out of Grafenwoehr that has a kennel in Amburg," he said. "I go up there and train them with him. Pretty much all of my free time goes into that. It takes my mind off of this place and helps me get ready for the rotations."
Kroncich said that he plans to continue his time in the Army, but hopes to become a Military Working Dog handler. Bickley, however, plans to get out of the Army when his current enlistment is done.
"I always wanted to do this since I was little," Bickley said. "My grandfather was in Vietnam and he didn't talk about it much, but since he was in the Army I guess it just always made me want to do it."
"I'm glad that I've done this, though" he added. "There were times that it felt like, why the heck am I doing this, but looking back I'm really glad I did my time and I learned a lot here."
He said he plans to go home to Marblehead and get into welding and manufacturing with his grandfather's business. If given the chance to talk to high school kids back home about the Army, he had this advice to offer:
"The Army is like a giant family," Bickley said. "You get to know these guys a lot better than you would in any other job. You build incredible trust with the guys to your left and right and I love that. I did my time and I'm getting out, but I'm glad I did it. I have no regrets."
While Bickley and Kroncich both plan to move on from their current assignment, the 1-4 will remain here. They'll continue to provide Europe's only OPFOR assets, and keep JMRC's mission focused on training, effectiveness, interoperability and building relationships with the U.S. Army's partners and NATO allies.
By U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Jerry Boffeny
130th Public Affairs Detachment
Connecticut National Guard
Provided through DVIDS
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