COMMEX help 116th IBCT sharpen communications proficiency

Signal corps Soldiers assigned to the Staunton-based 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team conduct a communications exercise to test the readiness of their systems Feb. 8, 2020, at Fort Pickett, Virginia. (U.S. National Guard photo by Mike Vrabel)

FORT PICKETT, Va. — Signal Corps Soldiers assigned to the Staunton-based 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team conducted a massive communications exercise to test all of their systems Feb. 7-9, 2020, at Fort Pickett, Virginia. 

The exercise brought together more than 120 communications Soldiers from across the entire brigade,  in an effort to update and test their voice and data transfer systems. 

“The communications exercise in February was an important milestone in generating readiness for the brigade to operate in a decisive action training environment this summer,” said Col. Joe DiNonno, 116th IBCT commander.  “The amount of planning and participation required to pull this off was significant and our communication and network Soldiers did an outstanding job ensuring that the Stonewall Brigade can synchronize operations under all conditions.”

Capt. Shawnn Manthey, the 116th’s communications officer, said the exercise was unprecedented in his experience, bringing together the brigade’s communications section as well as the communications sections from the IBCT’s six line battalions. 

“What we are doing is a brigade-wide communications exercise that tests every system from radios and tactical satellite communications to conducting FM retransmission with unmanned aerial vehicles,” said Manthey. “Since I’ve been in the Guard, I’ve never seen anything to this size. Nothing has ever tested every system we own, all the way down to the passing of bits and data across the network to the scale we’re doing it.”

Despite the massive scale of the exercise, the focus was on the individual Soldier getting more familiar and confident on the systems and equipment. 

More than 120 communications experts from across the brigade set up and tested all of their voice and data systems during the exercise, focusing on user-level training to ensure the Soldiers are familiar with and confident on the equipment. (U.S. National Guard photo by Mike Vrabel)

“This month is a user-level training,” said Manthey. “Let’s do the maintenance on the Soldier, make sure the Soldier knows what to do. It gives them confidence on the equipment to make sure everything is working and they know how to operate it.”

One of the ways the exercise is helping the individual systems operators is by having them conduct troubleshooting and fixes, rather than just relying on the brigade’s systems experts. 

“I’ve got my experts, my digital systems engineers, my networking engineers, I’ve told them all to be in a trainer role,” explained Manthey. “Normally what happens is someone has a problem, and the digital expert gets in there as says “alright, you’re fixed,’ and walks away. I’ve told them they aren’t allowed to touch a keyboard right now. If someone is having a problem, you stand behind them, look over their shoulder and tell them what to do and explain why they’re doing it.”

The success of the COMMEX is a building block for the brigade’s next challenges, including it’s rotation later in 2020 at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana. Manthey said the importance of the COMMEX can’t be understated. 

“I don’t want to call it a ‘Super Bowl’ because I think that’s JRTC, but this is certainly a playoff game. In my mind, this is the most important thing going this weekend,” said Manthey. “I know you have to shoot, move and communicate, but ‘communicate’ is there with ‘shooting,’ so it’s just as important as going to the range.”

Brigade leadership intend to make the unit-wide communications training a regular part of training.

“This was a phenomenal event that offered all units from the BCT the ability to share their knowledge, experience and TTPs,” said Lt. Col. Beau Mason, the 116th’s executive officer. “The ability to cross-level this knowledge was a defining moment and we look to continue this event annually in order to maintain our proficiency.”

“The perfect Soldier masters his mind, his body and his weapon,” added Manthey. “These systems out here are our weapons. That’s how we get information domination on the battlefield.”