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Federal budget cuts limit National Guard live-fire drills

YAKIMA – A rifle squad of Washington Army National Guardsmen sprints to take cover along a plywood wall. Spc. Chaz Grady, of Spokane, provides cover with his M4 carbine, looking for a chance to flank enemy combatants in a narrow alley cutting through a small town.

The arid, rolling hills outside Yakima stand in for enemy territory. In this exercise, a friendly meeting with the town elder has gone south and the 10-man team is sweeping the area for hostiles.

Wednesday’s exercise is just part of a two-and-a-half-week training stay in Yakima for the 1st Battalion, 161st Infantry Regiment headquartered in Spokane. Grady, 21, and the 780 reservists statewide who comprise the battalion arrived Saturday and have spent the last several days camped out in the sprawling, 327,000-acre complex where Huey helicopters soar overhead and the ground quakes with the rumbling of Abrams tanks.

Yet, even in this remote patch of land that doesn’t take much imagination to compare to the steppes of Afghanistan, the federal spending squeeze can be felt. Grady’s gun isn’t loaded for this exercise, and shouts of “Bang bang!” among his squadmates take the place of gunfire.

Automatic budget cuts at the national level hit the military just as it has all accounts in the federal ledger. For the guardsmen at the Yakima Training Center, that means fewer hours of live-fire practice due to furloughs among the civilian staff who monitor the ranges.

The change isn’t all bad, said Capt. Nick Stuart, a training officer who also is from Spokane.

“They’re doing what they can right now,” Stuart said before another squad prepared to weave through the town. “We’re actually a little grateful. There’s still a benefit to the exercises. There’s a lot of little complexities they can work through.”

Grady, who has spent more than a few weekends as a reservist on the ranges in Yakima, agreed.

“You just have to get what you can from doing these dry runs and concentrate on all the small things,” Grady said. “When it comes live, you make the best out of it.”

At noon, squads get the OK from command and load up their weapons. The stillness of the surrounding hills is interrupted by the pop of gunfire and the excited shouts coming from the riflemen sprinting up the gravel road. As silhouette targets spring from the sagebrush on a hillside beyond the town, the benefit of live-fire practice becomes clear. A machine-gunner has difficulty zeroing in on his target and drains the clip finding his mark.

“That was a teachable moment,” Stuart said.

Members of the battalion weren’t just practicing infantry maneuvers Wednesday. On a shooting range 3,000 feet above sea level, gunners in Abrams tanks have been battling high winds, trying to calibrate targeting computers housed underneath layers of armor and steel. The battalion specializes in combined arms, which means they’re trained for deployment in tank and armed vehicular combat.

The winds are relatively calm today, and shouts of “Round in!” are quickly followed by the eardrum-rattling boom of tracer rounds firing out of the cannon.

Military training taking place at the center since the World War II era marches on, unimpeded by Mother Nature or Washington D.C. For the members of the Spokane-based battalion, which saw two deployments during Operation Iraqi Freedom and can trace its ancestry to when Washington was a territory, inconveniences like early morning wake-ups and shifting from civilian to military life come second to the mission at hand.

“You just got to put on your big-boy pants and get used to camping it rough,” Grady said. “That’s basically what we do.”

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