Twenty U.S. Army soldiers lined up on a firing range deep into the hills of Camp Roberts and took aim at various bright orange targets during live-fire pistol combat training on a recent blistering-hot afternoon.
“This course at Camp Roberts is ideal because it’s more realistic than paper targets. It’s the way to go,” said 2nd Lt. Dennis Bitetti of the 514th Signal Company, an active duty Army unit assigned to Camp Roberts’ satellite communications station.
The training was a typical exercise at Camp Roberts.
Located north of Paso Robles and spanning nearly 43,000 acres, Camp Roberts is one of the state’s three main training bases for the California National Guard and trains more than 15,000 guardsmen in a typical year, plus additional military personnel like Bitetti’s unit. Civilian groups also use the base.
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The Cal Guard troops, who train as U.S. Army and Air Force guardsmen and provide emergency response, come to Camp Roberts from about 120 facilities statewide from Eureka to San Diego, representing fields such as military police, combat engineers, medics and Airguard helicopter units.
National Guardsmen from other states also train at Camp Roberts, but in fewer numbers.
“Camp Roberts is one of the most utilized bases in the western United States because it’s expansive and conducive for training,” said Capt. Will Martin, public affairs officer for the California National Guard.
“When you’re doing combat training, you’re often going to need to cover a lot of ground for navigational training. You also have large-sized units doing assaults on other units, and that requires a lot of space. Also, when using weaponry such as explosive devices, we need a lot of space for the safety of the units involved.”
Born in World War II
Camp Roberts opened in 1941 as thousands of U.S. Army troops prepared for World War II. The base reached its peak population of 45,000 soldiers in 1945. When the war ended, the base went from bustling to mostly barren as it transitioned to training military reserves in the summer.
That cycle continued during and after the Korean War and during part of the Vietnam War, though in fewer numbers, until it officially closed as an Army installation in 1970 and moved to the California Army National Guard’s control in 1971.
The Cal Guard continues to operate the base today and, among other things, has used it as its main deployment training site for troops going to Iraq and Afghanistan from 2003 to the present.
The government invested about $70 million in improving and renovating Camp Roberts from 2010 to 2014, base spokeswoman Suzi Thomas said.
Due to its size, Camp Roberts is also used for training all branches of the military nationwide — like Bitetti’s unit, which had been stationed at the base from Fort Detrick, Md.
Among the Cal Guard troops who travel to Camp Roberts from around the state, some specialized guardsmen include the FEMA Region IX Homeland Response Force out of Fairfield, the Counterdrug Task Force out of Sacramento and the 9th and 95th Civil Support Teams out of Los Alamitos and Mountain View that respond to HAZMAT and terrorist activities.
Community groups travel to the base for various programs, including 2,000 high school students from nearly 80 YMCAs statewide who attend a mock government leadership conference there.
Last year, Cal Fire trained more than 200 Cal Guardsman for deployment on wild land fires. Those troops, with Cal Fire captains leading them, were sent to the fires in Northern California, San Luis Obispo County Cal Fire Chief Rob Lewin said.
“With the topography Camp Roberts has, it was an ideal location for this training,” he said. “It’s classic California without development — rugged hills covered in oak woodland with areas of chaparral.”
Cal Fire sends personnel each year to help burn Camp Roberts’ artillery ranges to create fire breaks; the work also serves as training for firefighters in the early fire season.
The base is designated as San Luis Obispo County’s Reception and Care Center in the event of an emergency at Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, so the County Office of Emergency Services, County Public Health, National Guard and the American Red Cross, among other agencies, conduct drills there to prepare for any such incident.
The care center, different from an evacuation center where people stay overnight, would offer the public radiation monitoring and, if necessary, decontamination services by trained personnel. (Diablo Canyon overnight evacuation sites are coordinated through the American Red Cross and their locations would be disclosed at the time of an emergency).
The base’s many barracks make a good setup for processing, and its large spaces, such as its main kitchen, are good for public aid, said Ron Alsop, the county’s emergency services manager.
“We are fortunate to have Camp Roberts in our county for this and other local community interactive uses,” Alsop said.
Alsop also works with the base for earthquake training and to review how military equipment such as satellite phones, Wi-Fi-equipped command tents and drones could be used in civilian disaster-relief efforts in the future.
Various county agencies are also preparing for a large, three-day nuclear disaster response exercise slated for fall 2016 to be held at the base, he said.
Combat training facilities
This month, nearly 4,500 Cal Guard troops arrived at Camp Roberts for two weeks of annual training in combat and disaster response exercises.
That training included unit and squad-level maneuver drills, medical evacuation and helicopter transport operations, and command post exercises to coordinate missions that involved multiple units.
The exercises fulfilled part of troops’ required minimum training of one weekend per month and two weeks each summer.
The base, which has 4,200 beds and 20 dining areas, also has new training facilities to prepare for missions involving unmanned aircraft and urban warfare.
In 2014, the base unveiled a new compound for flying unmanned aircraft with an operations center, maintenance hangar and a covered area to help shield operators from the harsh sun and weather. The unmanned aircraft fly at several thousand feet and are designed to transmit aerial footage to ground operators to help troops plan their next move.
The project followed the opening of Camp Roberts’ urban disaster and combat training center, which resembles a small city on a hill complete with a mock church, cemetery, hotel, town hall and several walled compounds.
The base also has various multi-lane shooting ranges for assault rifles, combat pistols, automated machine guns and hand grenades. Two response sites with stacked trailers, cars and rubble mimic the aftermath of an explosion in a chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear disaster.
“Over the past several years, we’ve poured a lot of energy into Camp Roberts because it’s so critical to both our state and overseas missions,” Martin said. “Now we have one of the most cutting-edge installations on the West Coast.”