LOHATLA, South Africa -- Patrolling across an open field in the African bushland after reports of a kidnapping by insurgents, Staff Sgt. Donovan Sweet unknowingly led his squad toward a looming ambush.
Moments later, two devices exploded followed by bursts of enemy gunfire. The 26-year-old leader quickly shouted commands to his 101st Airborne Division squad to fire back as they sought the only cover available behind small, thorny shrubs.
One-by-one his squad members, along with other Soldiers in his platoon, were shot as part of a mock scenario Friday during the two-week Shared Accord exercise, which ends August 3. Held at different African training sites each year, the joint exercise enhances the peacekeeping capabilities of U.S. and African forces in support of U.N. and African Union mandates.
More than 230 Soldiers from the division's 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment are participating in the bilateral exercise, along with about 300 South African Army soldiers, 100 U.S. and South African marines, and 50 Soldiers from U.S. Army Africa headquarters.
The simulated attack, led by South African soldiers posing as insurgents, was specifically drawn up to inflict heavy losses. While they succeeded, it also served as a tough lesson to the defeated.
"They need to be able to learn to communicate better and notice what's around them, not just in front of them," Sweet said of his squad. The exercise also gave him the opportunity to refine his own leadership skills.
Realizing one's strengths and weaknesses was a goal for Capt. Christian Radulesco, who helped devise the attack. Radulesco and three other observer-controllers left Germany to join the exercise from the Joint Multinational Readiness Center, the Army's Europe-based combat training center.
"They still walk away with an important lesson learned," said Radulesco, 36, of Atlanta, Georgia. "And that is what's key here, even if the whole platoon is wiped out.
"To each challenge, there is a correct doctrinal answer," he added. "If the leaders follow the correct doctrine … and their junior leaders take initiative, then they're successful."
In Sweet's squad, there was at least one positive when the simulated gunfire rang out across the field. As he gave orders, an enemy fighter popped out of the bush and "fatally" shot him, which sounded off his multiple integrated laser engagement system, or MILES gear. When that happened, one of his younger Soldiers took charge of the squad, which had also lost a team leader.
"That was probably an eye-opening moment for him as well as it was for me," said Sweet, of Mooresville, North Carolina.
At just 20 years old, Pfc. Zachary Pullen, an M249 squad automatic weapon gunner, became the squad leader as he and the rest of the Soldiers still in the game went on to complete the mission.
"All that muscle memory kicked in and you just had to go," said Pullen, 20, of Rapid City, South Dakota. "If you sit there and think about it, you might get people killed."
Having not been in combat yet, Pullen also thought the real-world training in a foreign country could better prepare him and others for when that time comes.
"It's a different experience from what we do back home," he said. "Back home, the [opposing force] knows our tactics and we know theirs. But we don't know [the South African Army] tactics."
One of the South African soldiers shooting at Sweet's squad was impressed with the Soldiers' movements, despite their losses.
"Actually, they are more organized [than us]," said South African Army Pvt. Albert Mkhabela. "They move more in buddy pairs and they secure each other, so they really did well."
But the home-field advantage may have proved too much for the Americans. "This is our terrain," Mkhabela said. "We do training here most of the time, so we are acclimatized with the terrain."
Sweet and the other 101st Division Soldiers are expected to get another shot against their South African counterparts later in the exercise when it evolves into more complex force-on-force training scenarios.
The unique training with the South Africans is just one of many training events the Soldiers will go through to improve their readiness.
"We don't know where we're going next," Sweet said of potential deployments. "You have to be able to diversify yourself and your Soldiers in order to be successful wherever you go."