EL PASO, Texas — They were a support unit trained to change tires, repair vehicles and keep the Army moving forward, but on March 23, 2003, Fort Bliss' 507th Maintenance Company was pushed into combat with Iraqi soldiers — something the unit was not prepared to handle.
Nine soldiers were killed, five wounded and seven were captured when their convoy took a wrong turn in the Southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah. Pfc. Lori Ann Piestewa was one of the captured but died later and is listed as one of the nine killed.
According to the Army's investigative report of the firefight, "human error, fatigue and the fast pace" of Operation Iraqi Freedom were contributing factors to the deaths, injuries and captures.
Since then, the Army has dealt with many other firefights, some similar to the 507th ambush, and each has taught a clear lesson: Every soldier must be a warrior first.
"We have made changes based on Operation Iraqi Freedom — lessons learned — and have increased the amount of warrior-focused training," said Col. John C. Hamilton, commander of the 6th Air Defense Artillery Training Brigade.
"Bottom line is everyone must be trained and ready to be a soldier first."
Operation Iraqi Freedom has caused the Army, including Fort Bliss, to make changes in the way the soldiers are trained. The changes, although not entirely new, are currently being incorporated into the physical training routines of every soldier.
"This is not new," Hamilton said. "We have been doing this, but Operation Iraqi Freedom just reinforced the importance."
Some of the changes require that soldiers be proficient in basic warrior tasks that "allow them to survive on the battlefield and destroy the enemy."
This includes additional time with their weapons, land navigation and map-reading skills, first-aid training and nuclear, biological and chemical training.
Like all Fort Bliss soldiers, members of the 507th Maintenance Company had received similar training in addition to training within each of their jobs or specialties.
Cpl. Joseph Hudson, former prisoner of war from the 507th, said he heard about the different training exercises Fort Bliss was organizing on post in recent months for the reserve units who were preparing to deploy and wanted to see them for himself.
"We did train like them but not as excessively. There's more realism in the training," he said. "It's getting better. And I like to tell soldiers you can never train too much."
The Army has also integrated "warrior tasks and battle drills into all the officer and enlisted soldier field training," added training that teaches soldiers how to handle civilians on the battlefield. They have implemented changes to the Army Physical Readiness Programs to focus more on muscular strength and endurance.
"While we have always done these things, we are putting more emphasis on warrior training than before, where we focused mostly on technical training," Hamilton said.
After having gone through new training that includes combative movements, such as hand-to-hand fighting, Sgt. Luciano Lopez is confident enough to take on any soldier.
"Before, what we were doing when we did hand-to-hand combat training, there would be some throw-down movements, but it wasn't very realistic," Lopez said. "With the new training you're doing a lot of ground fighting. This kind of training would have helped in the war, especially with the 507th when they had weapons malfunctioning."
Sgt. 1st Class John Baird, a combat instructor, said the new training provides every soldier with an arsenal that they can take anywhere in the world.
"When the bullets run out, they can still fight and fight very effectively," Baird said. "The M-16 isn't the only weapon on the battlefield. The soldier is a weapon."
Lt. Col. Joseph DeAntona, director of the office of the chief of air defense, said strength training is one key effort he believes will help in future wars.
"One of the biggest lessons learned out of Operation Iraqi Freedom is training our soldiers (how) to get injured or wounded soldiers out of a vehicle. One of the newer training events is using the fireman's carry," said DeAntona, who practiced hand-to-hand combat.
"It's not just telling a soldier, 'OK, jump on my shoulder and I'll run some 200 meters.' No, it's a soldier lying on the floor and you have to pick up a soldier, who can weigh up to 200 pounds, up off the floor and run."