MARINE CORPS OUTLYING FIELD ATLANTIC -- At best, the conditions were cold and austere.Lt. Col. Adam Frederick wouldn't have had it any other way.
The commander of 1st Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment, took his troops nearly 190 miles from Fort Bragg to a difficult environment largely unfamiliar to soldiers used to training at their home station. A storm that blew down the dining tent added an extra dose of realism to the bare-bones setting.
The squadron is part of the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division.
Living and working from tents on a barren airfield near the North Carolina coast for more than two weeks in early February, the soldiers had to team up to keep more than two dozen OH-58 Kiowa Warrior helicopters in the air, shooting targets on land and at sea.
"The amount of learning and training that's going on here -- for me it's impressive," Frederick said, roughly half-way into the exercise. "It's not just impressive, it's monumental."
Over the course of the two-plus weeks the squadron was in the field, the exercise proved a challenge across the unit.
Mechanics and technicians tended to 28 helicopters, which accounted for most of the squadron save the aircraft set aside for the Global Response Force mission.
Members of the squadron headquarters staff had to keep those aircraft in the air to maintain the hectic training pace.
When the helicopters were in the air, they had to be kept armed and fueled by soldiers working around the clock at a Forward Arming and Refueling Point.
The pilots had to fly in conditions unfamiliar to most -- over water with little to no illumination.
And when the soldiers weren't working, they were fed by a team of six soldiers. That team had to contend with feeding nearly 300 soldiers while dealing with gale-force winds that destroyed their dining tent and sleeping quarters.
Frederick, who likes to compare the different parts of his squadron to a wagon wheel, said the exercise proved that each spoke was important to the integrity of the mission. If one spoke fails, it weakens the wheel, he said.
"If too many spokes break, the wheel stops," Frederick said. "Out here, everybody's able to see how the components come together to make a successful operation."
Frederick took command of the squadron early last year, shortly after the soldiers returned from a nine-month deployment in Afghanistan. He said the training presented a rare opportunity to operate in a truly austere environment.
Marine Corps Outlying Field Atlantic is a small, World War II-era training location that was once abandoned. It now hosts various training exercises, typically from Marines and other forces in eastern North Carolina.
An hour's drive from Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, the training area was nestled next to a tiny hamlet sharing the field's name in Carteret County.
The airfield is surrounded by tall pines, and old and unused planes can be spotted along the crisscrossing runways.
There are few buildings. Those that remain are simple brick structures that were largely untouched by the squadron.
Frederick said Iraq and Afghanistan were mature environments. On deployments to those countries, soldiers were billeted in locations with permanent buildings.
On the Carolina coast, canvas tents separated the soldiers from the cold and rain.
"It goes back to the basic skills of being in the field," Frederick said. "This is the first time they've had to deal with austere living."
Soldiers were forced to learn, or in some cases re-learn, how to operate far from home.
"Logistically, on Fort Bragg it's easy," the commander said. "But out here, there's nothing."
The targets also were different from what pilots typically see at Fort Bragg.
Soldier aviators took turns engaging targets on an island and old, half-sunken ships resting on a sandbar in the Pamlico Sound.
They fired 2.75-inch rockets and .50-caliber machine guns in what was perhaps the most austere aspect of the training.
For aviators used to relaying on terrain to guide them, the empty ocean can be intimidating, according to pilots, including Frederick.
At night, the pilots had to learn to fly with few visual references outside of the horizon, all while battling wind gusts up to 60 mph.
"And when the moon is where it is right now, there's zero illumination," Frederick added. "It's kind of like flying in a black hole at times."
All of that makes for conditions that can be humbling, even for the best pilots.
"It is challenging for a lot of aviators that have a lot of experience," Frederick said. "It makes them better pilots."
While 1st Lt. William Giddens couldn't see the aviators at work shooting targets, he could certainly see the speed and volume of the training.
Giddens is a platoon leader in the squadron's E Troop and was the officer in charge of the Forward Arming and Refueling Point, or FARP, at Marine Corps Outlying Field Atlantic.
Roughly a week into the training, Giddens said his soldiers were providing 5,000 gallons of fuel and about 400 rockets and 8,400 .50-caliber rounds a day.
"Roughly every 15 minutes there's an aircraft coming in," he said. "From 8 a.m. to midnight, we're exercising all our muscles."
Staff Sgt. David Streeter, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the FARP, said the exercise was a culminating event for the squadron, which has held numerous training events on and off Fort Bragg since its return from Afghanistan.
"Everything we've trained on the past year has led up to this," he said.
Capt. Wes Barber, the squadron's assistant S3, or operations and training officer, helped plan the exercise.
He said that of the 330 soldiers assigned to the unit, more than 270 were in the field, making it the largest exercise for the squadron in years.
Adding to the complexity was that the squadron was shooting more ammunition and spending more time away from Fort Bragg than it has since it was deployed.
But the biggest hurdle, he said, came long before any shooting began.
"As an aviation unit, we aren't as trained on the ground movement," he said. "There were a lot of moving pieces."
Another hurdle came with maintaining the aircraft.
Staff Sgt. Ramon Baker, a tactical inspector with D Troop, said soldiers had to plan ahead to ensure they had the right tools and parts to keep the helicopters flying.
"You don't have that crutch that you're near home," he said.
With helicopters constantly flying in and out of the airfield, refueling and rearming, Baker said soldiers might not see the damage, but they certainly take note.
"We were smoking," he said, motioning to a nearby helicopter. "This right here is my baby."
One thing Barber didn't plan was the weather.
The squadron was literally knocked back on Super Bowl Sunday, when strong winds tore through the training area and destroyed two tents being used by the squadron's cooks.
Sgt. 1st Class Jackie Zerby, the squadron's culinary management noncommissioned officer, called the storm "Hurricane Atlantic." It struck hard, she said, destroying one tent used to wash dishes and for sleeping quarters for her team of six soldiers, and another tent that was used as a dining area.
"I have no words for it. It was everywhere," she said, trying to describe the winds that tossed sinks, tables and dishes across the training grounds.
"It's been challenging, but at the same time everybody has stepped up to the plate," Zerby said. "It's a good learning experience."
Other soldiers along the airfield also were victims to the storm.
Baker said D Troop's tents were flooded.
Netting was knocked down, and heaters -- the soldiers' chief defense against temperatures close to freezing -- were waterlogged and had to be repaired.
"You've just got to deal with it," he said. "It's a job you signed up for. You have to take pride in it."