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Fresh Meadows sergeant to train civilians for war

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Like many other Americans, Sgt. David Rodriguez watches CNN every day to keep track of progress of the war in Iraq.

Unlike many Americans, Rodriguez, an army artillery fire expert who spent his teen years in Fresh Meadows, wishes he were over in the Middle East, helping U.S. soldiers use the fully digitalized M109A6 and M119 howitzers that he tested while he was in Fort Hood, Texas from 1996 to 1998.       

Instead, at the request of the U.S. Department of Army, Rodriguez will be working as a drill sergeant in about a week, helping to train civilians to become soldiers, who might later be sent to fight a war.

"Everyone has a place in the military," said Rodriguez, 27, who is now stationed in Fort Lewis, Wash. "When something happens, like there's a deployment to war, everyone plays a part. So, yes, I would have liked to be in the war, but I still have a part to play to ensure that the Army is still functioning. So my role is to become a drill sergeant to train those civilians into soldiers so they can go to the Army."

Rodriguez joined the Army in 1995, two years after graduating from Adlai E. Stevenson High School in the Bronx. He underwent basic training in Fort Sill, Okla., where he will soon be working as a drill sergeant.

A year later, he moved to Fort Hood and began field testing paladins - also known as self-propelled howitzers - a type of artillery equipment that looks like a tank and shoots many different types of high explosives ranging from 155mm rounds to bombs, grenades, smoke rounds and FASCAM, or special bombs that release wire-containing bomblets when they burst. The bomblets bury themselves into the ground, becoming components of a land mine.

After spending some time in Germany, Rodriguez was stationed in the 101st airborne division in Fort Campbell, Ky. in 1999, where he worked as chief fire directions specialist with howitzers and UH60 Blackhawk helicopters that can transport artillery equipment such as High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles (better known as humvees) and M119 towed howitzers.

In 2000, Rodriguez moved to Fort Lewis, Wash., where he is currently stationed.

As chief fire directions specialist, Rodriguez commanded about 60 soldiers, teaching them how to survive on the battlefield, even under compromised conditions when computer operations are down or some howitzers are taken out of battle.

"Our motto is to send lethal artillery fire under any condition," said Rodriguez. "If we're being fired upon and we're defending our area, we should still be able to send artillery fire."

Field artillery such as howitzers, which have been nicknamed the "king of battle," typically stay toward the rear of an infantry division and provide fire support once the infantry spots a target. They also fire upon targets identified by JSTARS - military planes that can pick up where an enemy is on the battlefield through radar and heat signatures.

Setting up a battery of artillery for fire requires a lot of physical movement, which soldiers practice during training.

"We go through the shoot, move and communicate training," said Rodriguez. "Setting up tent, moving equipment, spinning around howitzers, pulling rounds is very physical. Rounds go from 95 pounds each to about 103 pounds, and you have to physically pick them up."

Some brigades deployed in the current war have been specially trained to fight in urban environments, where the enemy is typically dressed in civilian clothing, said Rodriguez.

"Instead of like in Vietnam time where they just demolished entire towns, we were trying to design a brigade to fight within an urban area," said Rodriguez. "Civilian casualties wasn't a high concern for us in wars of the past, but it is a high concern for us now, and we're training to that effect."

In general, Rodriguez believes the war in Iraq is being fought effectively.

"I think we're doing well, the way that we're fighting," he said. "It's not chaotic. It's not mass confusion. I feel that the troops are fighting the war effectively, they're motivated and they know what they need to do."

Rodriguez emphasized that there are no absolutes in war, but he said the military seemed prepared and seemed to have insight into what was going on in terms of urban warfare and possible chemical attacks.

"I think we've trained for the war of tomorrow," he said. "We're prepared for chemical or biological attacks. We've trained for that stuff for years."

The war in Iraq is justified because Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is linked with associations that have brought terror into the U.S., said Rodriguez.

"Have they messed with our freedom? Yes, they have," he said. "Have they messed with the freedom of others? Yes, they have. Freedom is won, it's not free. There's things that need to be done so that we keep our freedom."

Rodriguez advised troops that are deploying to keep a positive mind and to keep focused on their jobs and goals.

"Just know your job, complete your job and then come back home," he said.

Reach reporter Tien-Shun Lee by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com, or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 155.

Posted 7:03 pm, October 10, 2011
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