BOISE, Idaho — "Yesterday it was 105 degrees here. Find a bottle buddy, and each of you make sure the other stays hydrated. That's the way the Army does it, that's the way you're going to do it. Hooah?"
"Hooah!" we reply, in approved Army fashion. It's not yet 100 degrees in the desert near Boise, but it feels as if that's just a matter of time. It's July 23, and 44 of us are standing in our civvies, paying close attention to an Army National Guard captain.
That morning we had arrived at Gowen Air National Guard base, next to the Boise Airport, as part of a program called Boss Lift. It's an activity coordinated by the Employer Support of Guard and Reserve. ESGR was set up in 1972, when the national draft ended, as a way to smooth relations and resolve conflicts between employers and the obligations of their employees to be away from their jobs at times for Guard and Reserve training. By showing employers and community leaders how Guard and Reserve employees train, Boss Lift organizers aim to create a better understanding of the impact of service and the demands it makes on employees.
This session, there are 185 of us. Some were from the local Boise area, others were flown in from distant parts of Idaho, and a group of us came from Oregon.
Over the course of our carefully organized stay, we'll have two rides in a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter, spend time in a $3 million A-10A Thunderbolt II flight simulator, clamber on an M1-A1 Abrams tank, and have a chance to fire laser-rigged machine guns at a whole wall of computer-generated targets.
We'll also get close to Apache attack helicopters, F-15 fighters, armored Humvees, Bradley Fighting Vehicles and other hardware. To handle this many people at this many activities, we're divided into four groups that move through the different rotations.
The Oregon group includes four from The Dalles: Dan Manciu, owner of Y 102 radio, Mary Stocks of The Dalles Area Chamber of Commerce, Jim Wilbern, owner of Don's Cleaners, and this reporter.
The plane picked up more in Pendleton and La Grande, including Bob Davies, the new president of Eastern Oregon University. He becomes my bottle buddy.
Once in the desert, four Black Hawks, each carrying 11 of us, ferry us out to Range Three. The 10-minute ride is exhilarating, a high point of our stay. There's a lot to see. The Orchard Training Area is about 138,000 acres, which includes a pop-up target range for tanks that is one of only six in the world. On the ground, we step down carefully and are warned about badger holes, which punctuate the flat desert every few feet.
"They're leg-breakers," says one of the soldiers. "Now you understand what it's like walking around here at night trying to find the porta-potty. That's what your employees are going through."
Though tanks have plenty of room to move in this big stretch of desert, that's not what we're here to see. After pairing off as bottle buddies, we string out along a narrow airstrip to watch an unmanned aerial vehicle land.
What we see is an RQ-7 Shadow 200. It has a 14-foot wingspan and a 15,000-foot ceiling, but the resolution of the onboard camera is still classified. It's not armed. That's reserved for the larger Predator, which has a 48-foot wingspan and can carry two Hellfire missiles.
As bottle buddies, Bob Davies and I grab a fresh bottle of cold water from an ice chest.
Davies, who started his job as Eastern Oregon University president just 24 days before, is pumped about his new post. He's also enthusiastic about Boss Lift.
"This is an important trip for Eastern Oregon," he said. "We have a very long tradition of working with and supporting the Guard," he says. Currently, 11 students at the EOU campus are in the National Guard. "To be part of this — to see what our students are going through I think is very important," he said.
There's a historic connection as well. During World War II, some Army pilots were trained at EOU's campus in La Grande.
A similar program was reintroduced in 1991. Unlike regular campus ROTC programs, it's designed for people who have already spent time as enlisted soldiers, and have a sufficient amount of college work completed. It's one of only two such programs in the U.S.
Back at Gowen Field, we enter our second rotation. Half of us crowd into the A-10 simulator room, while the other half head outdoors to a static display of aircraft, including an Apache attack helicopter, an A-10, and an F-15.
The simulator room has a door with a keypad lock, and the simulator itself is one of the two places where we are not allowed to take pictures. The other is the interior of an Abrams tank.
The simulator cockpit is surrounded by screens at various angles. When you sit in the cockpit, the screens completely fill your field of vision, and when you push the stick to one side, the horizon tilts to match as you speed by the terrain. It's a convincing experience.
At dinner, the main speaker is Gen. Craig R. McKinley, the first four-star general to head the Guard. He thanks employers and notes the change in training brought about by the events of 9/11. Guard and Reserve members are now giving up 21 days each summer. He advises everyone to be prepared for what Gen. George Casey, the Army chief of staff, has called a decade or more of persistent conflict.
He suggests there ought to be tax breaks or other financial incentives to reward employers who continue to provide benefits to employees who have been deployed. And he offers a word of thanks from the troops.
After dinner a static display allows us to climb on a Marine M1-A1 Abrams tank. After meeting the real tank, we visit several stations to watch computer simulation tank firing drills.
Then it's a visit to the Humvee Egress Assistance Trainer. It's essentially a Humvee mounted on front-and-aft gimbals. Troops load up, then the unit rotates so the passenger compartment tips on its side or upside down, and troops can learn to get out safely in different conditions.
Our final activity takes us to target practice. It's a big room with a raised platform facing a big blank wall. The platform has 10 nests of sandbags with real machine guns sitting on them: M-4s and M-16s. The guns have been converted to fire laser bursts instead of bullets, and each has an air hose attached to give us the kick of a real weapon. The entire blank wall becomes a computer-projected urban warfare situation, and we're told to fire on the bad guys, who duck in and out of cover.
A final muster, and we are dispersed to head home.