Tropic Lightning’s history and vision fuel key role in Pacific Rebalance
“The Pacific is my home ocean.”
— John Steinbeck
Armed with a presidential mandate and the kind of training and operating area that military planners dream about, the Army’s home team in Hawaii is taking a spirited, innovative approach to America’s renewed attention in the Pacific.
The fabled 25th Infantry Division has grabbed a leadership role in keeping an active, watchful eye on half the earth’s surface, and the men and women of “Tropic Lightning” are employing two unique, synergistic initiatives to tackle large pieces of their ongoing mission.
“Pacific Pathways” entails rotational deployment of an infantry battalion (and sometimes larger configurations) whose planned country visits and partner nation exercises are enhanced by the Soldiers’ capability and readiness as a real-world disaster relief or humanitarian assistance force.
Noting that “eight of ten natural disasters occur in this region of the world,” 25th ID commanding general, Maj. Gen. Charlie Flynn, dispatches his Pacific Pathways warrior-ambassadors with an ambitious punch list that includes tailored training in transit with, always, a special emphasis on small unit leadership — particularly in the NCO ranks.
Early this year, Soldiers from the 25th ID began executing the biggest Pacific Pathways yet, with two separate brigades working with counterparts in Thailand, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia, Indonesia and Malaysia.
The division’s one-of-a-kind “Lightning Academy,” a multi-dimensional schoolhouse nestled in and around the mountainous jungle that helps define Schofield Barracks, serves to leverage key support for the 25th’s globe-trotting missions – and to hone the skills of any Soldier who trudges through its muddy, vine-covered gates.
Lightning Academy was “taken out of hide,” said Flynn, meaning that the division has used existing, local resources and personnel to carve out a structure and program that benefits a down-sized Army. Select individuals from other services and foreign nations have availed themselves of the academy’s offerings, as well.
The general’s upbringing may make him the perfect fit for leading Soldiers in an austere environment. He grew up in Middletown, Rhode Island as the eighth of nine children — and with a retired Army master sergeant father who, said Flynn, “made sure you understood that you’ve got to earn your keep.”
The Jungle Operations Training Center, which came online just three years ago, is the academy’s most visible offering. It has already become a national military asset, especially with the 1999 shutdown of Panama’s Fort Sherman.
Ironically, the battalion commander of 25th ID’s latest Pacific Pathways, Lt. Col. Kevin Williams of Morgan Hill, California, was assigned to the Jungle Operations Training Center in Panama for his first tour. The “Wolfhounds” CO (2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment) was called on for his insights at the Lightning Academy “even though I was recalling what worked and what didn’t from 18 to 20 years ago.”
It’s not the first time Schofield has hosted an institution of higher jungle learning: Almost one million Soldiers graduated from an earlier version established in 1942.
The young 25th Infantry Division itself, along with the 24th ID, was birthed out of the old Hawaii Division in October 1941. Tropic Lightning’s distinguished World War II history began just two months later when Schofield Barracks found itself on the receiving end of a Japanese strafing, Dec. 7. Many were lauded for their quick thinking and bravery on that infamous day and, not long after, the division delivered hard-won victories on Guadalcanal, Northern Solomons and Luzon. Six 25th ID Soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor.
That combat lineage has continued unabated in the 75 years since — including the Korean War, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan — and clearly fuels today’s Oahu-based warriors in their current, far-ranging duties.
An expeditionary mindset continues to permeate the division and that certainly includes those charged with delivering reliable communications from halfway around the world.
“The Army generously gives us the big stuff,” said Seattle-native Master Sgt. Joshua Smith of 25th ID’s Network Operations. But distance and transit times tend to “create gaps in command and control,” especially with smaller, sometimes ad hoc units.
The solution: Creative use of commercial, off-the-shelf technology combined with NCO know-how.
Sgt. Katie Van of Adams, Massachusetts, is particularly adept at the use, and training, of the “GATR,” a lightweight, portable, inflatable comms terminal that is helping Pacific Pathways units stay in touch with higher headquarters.
Resembling an oversized beach ball, the apparatus can withstand extreme temperatures, 40 caliber rounds and function in 60 mph winds, she said.
Van may be the poster for the smarts and responsibility associated with Tropic Lighting NCOs: She is a sergeant filling a sergeant first class billet, and she is considering applying to the Army’s clinical psychology program.
“I heard that it could be a really good career,” she said. “And you have to be among the smartest to get in.”
Williams had his own smart NCOs on the recent Pacific Pathways jaunt, which included exercises in Australia, Indonesia and Malaysia.
“One of the United States Army’s greatest exports is the non-commissioned officer corps,” he said. “Most armies are officer-centric and officer-run. But the U.S. Army is, as it should be, an NCO-run organization. They are going to complete the mission with or without us.”
Williams said that fully 50 percent of his squad leader billets “were filled by sergeants. We did the one-up drill over there and they rose to the occasion.”
“Our counterparts in Indonesia were taking notes,” he said. “They were saying, ‘Wow! That (young Soldier) is a squad leader?’ And, of course, our warrior-leaders did a phenomenal job.”
The CO also singled out Staff Sgt. Kyle Martin of Warrenton, Virginia, for stepping in as a platoon sergeant just before the battalion deployed. “So here we’ve got a young staff sergeant in a platoon sergeant situation – and Lighting Academy training helped make that happen.”
Further up the chain, Sgt. 1st Class Charles Lusk of Canton, Georgia, was pressed into service as a company first sergeant. “First Sergeant Lusk was actually frocked just before we got to Indonesia. And he ran the company,” said Williams. “Our allies were, and are, impressed with the trust we demonstrate in empowering our NCOs.”
Lusk and Martin “both had super deployments,” he said.
Back in the rear, the Lightning Academy’s Adaptive Leader Course is among the Army’s best examples of NCO ownership and is, according to Flynn, “the course that our international partners and allies are most interested in replicating.”
“I can’t count how many foreign defense chiefs, army chiefs and command sergeant major equivalents have witnessed, particularly, the Adaptive Leader Course, with its innovation, creative thinking and training methods,” he said. “I can see them thinking their way through: ‘How can I take this capability that the U.S. military has and make it a reality in my army?’”
Listening to the training cadre — a handful of mostly staff sergeants representing a range of military occupational specialties — they could easily be mistaken for a group of professors at any major university, even though they wear camouflage instead of tweed, and their faculty lounge consists of two or three picnic tables pulled together at a jungle base camp.
But the talk is of “Bloom’s Taxonomy,” andragogy (adult learning theory) and other mastery level concepts, with a bias for “adapting as opposed to merely reacting to challenges,” said Staff Sgt. Jay Johnson, a quartermaster from Detroit.
A special academic hero to the group is Command Sgt. Maj. Ray Devans, a former 25th ID CSM assigned last year to the State Department at the Office of Security Cooperation in Baghdad.
“He got us thinking about adapting the institution itself, working at changing a culture … asking ‘why,’” said Southern Pines, North Carolina native Staff Sgt. William Shirer.
“Up to now, the tactical guy maybe didn’t need to know the thinking that went on in the general’s tent,” said Shirer. “But today the young Soldier is strategic. He or she needs to ask,’How does what I do change the operating environment? How do my independent actions affect the entirety of this?’”
Other faculty taking part in the discussion included Staff Sgts. Jonathan Riley of Selma, Oregon; Nicolas Magdaleno of Gonzales, California; and Anthony Lapaglia of Sandy Springs, Georgia.
Meanwhile, Tropic Lightning continues the march – conducting credentialed, formal training and operating as a proven go-to-war force.
An old joke has a car mechanic telling his doctor that, basically, they are in the same profession. “We both look under the hood, diagnose problems and fix whatever’s wrong,” says the mechanic.
“True enough,” replies the doc. “Except I do everything while the engine’s still running and the car is driving down the road.”
Just a few days’ observation leaves a similar impression of the 25th Infantry Division, this low-budget, make-it-happen amalgamation of outdoor classrooms, NCO-led field training, far-flung ops and goal-oriented individual Soldiers.
“This is a battle lab,” said Flynn.
Editor’s note: Visit https://youtu.be/2wdHrOTRvvE to learn more about the 25th Infantry Division’s role in the pivot to the Pacific.