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LI soldiers among 4,000 National Guard troops at 3-week Fort Drum training

Soldiers in the 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry Regiment

Soldiers in the 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry Regiment conduct a live-fire exercise during the New York National Guard's 27th Brigade Combat Team annual training at upstate Fort Drum on Thursday, July 23, 2015. Credit: Charles Eckert


It was a game whose movements had been sketched out in the dirt at the edge of an Adirondack forest, using pebbles, bits of brush and colorful plastic action figures.

The men -- a Greenport schoolteacher, a policy analyst from Smithtown and an Astoria car dealership manager among them -- would advance along a road, cut into the woods, then slip silently through the trees toward an enemy encampment near a village.

Only on this afternoon early this week, the guns some of them carried were loaded with live ammunition. The war exercises in which they were about to engage were potentially lethal.

"This is part of the job I've not done in three years," Army National Guard Spc. Thomas Chromyj of Bay Shore said moments before, as he cradled an assault rifle in war-toughened hands. "So doing this is locking up all of the training I've had over time."

Chromyj is among some 4,000 members of the New York Army National Guard's 27th Infantry Brigade Combat Team who are spending three weeks at an intensified training exercise just south of the Canadian border at Fort Drum. The exercises involve hundreds of soldiers from the Guard's 69th Infantry Regiment, which has facilities in Farmingdale, Manhattan and the Hudson Valley.

The massive war exercise is meant to help the brigade's soldiers and commanders apply individual skills -- such as field communications, marksmanship and map reading -- in coordinated military operations.

National Guard leaders said these exercises are particularly important now, as more and more civilian soldiers with combat experience gained in Iraq and Afghanistan are leaving the force.

This month's exercises are a last step before the 27th Infantry Brigade Combat Team travels to Fort Polk, Louisiana, next year for training that certifies Guard units as being ready for combat. The training, which has kept most soldiers here away from home since July 11, runs through Friday.

Lt. Col. Sean Flynn, author of "The Fighting 69th: From Ground Zero to Baghdad," said the exercise was in keeping with the Guard's pivot back toward the skills of conventional warfare, after years of focusing on the counterinsurgency tactics used during New York National Guard deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

"We were designed to fight a symmetrical force, and it's imperative that we exercise to ensure we are prepared," said Flynn, the 69th's commander.

On Thursday, members of the 69th took part in platoon assault exercises designed to simulate an attack that coordinated mortar fire with an assault force.

The exercise included two practice sessions using dummy ammunition, followed by a third in which soldiers fired hundreds of rounds of live ammunition.

Flynn said although the use of live ammunition introduces an element of danger into training exercises, it is impossible to fully train to maintain their composure while wielding potentially lethal weapons without exposing them to the live fire and Spartan conditions of the battlefield.

"If you're an insurance adjuster five days a week, this can be pretty rough," Flynn said. "But these longer training sessions give us a chance to indoctrinate these principles."

The exercises held at Fort Drum, the largest military base in the Northeast, are taking place amid 107,000 acres of hilltop fields and beech and maple forests interlaced with miles of bad road.

There are few creature comforts to be had. Men go days without showering. Meals are mostly field rations delivered in plastic pouches.

First Lt. Anthony Migliore, 25, smiled when asked how he is handling three weeks of roughing it, then nodded toward a grassy rise where he and others had pitched the one-man tents -- their bedrooms under the stars.

"I've been gone from the office for weeks now, but this is not a vacation, that's for sure," said Migliore, swatting at yet another mosquito, whose seemingly infinite numbers here make insect repellent a necessity.

Migliore, a Smithtown-born policy analyst for the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission who joined the National Guard in 2008, had helped direct field operations for Guard forces stationed at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn during superstorm Sandy.

But on Thursday, he was responsible for directing mock mortar fire as fellow troops advanced against an enemy in a field a quarter-mile away.

"This is huge," he said. "We are weekend warriors, so this is the one time in the year when we can put it all together and see if it all works."

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