The weather was hot, the weapons were different and there was little time to practice.
But five New York Army National Guard Soldiers had the time of their lives and placed fifth out of 22 teams during the South African Reserve Force Council Military Skills Competition 2010 at Potchefstroom Military Base Nov. 8-13.
The Soldiers, all members of Company C, 2nd Battalion, 108th Infantry, headquartered in Gloversville, N.Y., represented the United States at the annual South African event, known as “Milcomp.” The event combines athletic ability with basic military skills over a three-day period.
“The great thing about it was we were able to do a military exchange program with the South African Army and see how the South Africans operate and see similarities between Soldiers,” said Sgt. 1st Class Troy Mechanick, a resident of Hudson Falls, N.Y., and the Noncommissioned Officer in Charge of the team.
Accompanying Mechanick were Sgt. 1st Class Miguel Orabona from Ballston Lake, N.Y.; Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Dorvee from Queensbury, N.Y.; Sgt. David Hansen, from Melrose, N.Y.; and Pvt. 1st Class Michael Ellsworth, also from Hudson Falls.
The South African trip was the first time out of the United States for Ellsworth, who has not yet deployed on a mission. The other Soldiers are all veterans of contingency operations in Iraq or Afghanistan.
New York National Guardsmen regularly visit South Africa as part of the Guard’s State Partnership Program, which pairs a state’s National Guard with a developing nation’s military. New York has been partnered with the South Africa National Defense Force since 2005.
After arriving in the South African summer — “It was 90 degrees at 09:00,” Mechanick said — from a cool fall in upstate New York, the Guardsmen had a day to practice before launching into the competition, which involved shooting, negotiating obstacles and running.
For the shooting competition, the Americans were issued the unfamiliar South African R4 rifle, a 5.56mm assault rifle based on the Israeli Galil, which operates like an AK-47. Each team member fired 30 rounds in different positions at 100-meter targets. The top four scores provided the team score.
The R4 is a good weapon that is not very different from the M-4 American Soldiers use, Mechanick said.
“We practiced the fundamentals of marksmanship and we scored very high on it,” he said.
The weapon used in the pistol shooting competition, the South African Z88, is a South African copy of the M-9 Beretta that American Soldiers are familiar with. Again, the Soldiers fired 30 rounds, but this time at 25-meter targets.
The Americans got a break from the heat during the water obstacle competition. The Soldiers had to dive into a pool and negotiate obstacles as rapidly as possible, but the Americans didn’t do so well here.
Day two of the event included a grenade-throwing competition in which Soldiers were scored on accuracy and distance. The Americans did well at the grenade throw, Mechanick said.
Dorvee impressed his South African hosts by heaving a grenade 79 meters, 15 meters farther than the closest South African and four meters less than the world record, Mechanick said.
They did less well in the land obstacle course. The 20-obstacle South African course rewards agility and balance, while American obstacle courses require brute strength to negotiate, he explained.
The final event, an eight-kilometer run, was tough on the New Yorkers, Mechanick said. The American Soldiers were not used to running that much and it was very, very hot.
In addition to the competitive events, there was also time for the Soldiers to get to know their hosts better. The Americans attended a South African barbecue, known as a braai with some veteran South African NCOs, and there was always time to joke around.
The trip was a great chance to “represent the United States and New York State and to let them see what a typical U.S. Soldier is like,” Mechanick said. “A Soldier is a Soldier everywhere.”