National Training Center Observer Controller: My Experience

In 2001, while serving as a young Lieutenant at Fort Carson, Colorado, I received orders to report to the National Training Center as a “temporary” Observer Controller.  To the best of my recollection, I had to report to Fort Irwin for three weeks.  The first week was to get certified as an Observer Controller and the last two weeks were to do the job and evaluate my peer.

At the time I was still as Second Lieutenant and boy was I GREEN! I was a young Quartermaster Officer with no experience.  Even worse,  I looked at the assignment as PUNISHMENT.  At the time, I definitely did not feel honored to go.  I had a couple of days to get ready for the assignment, and then I got on a plane to fly to California.

This was my first visit to the National Training Center, but definitely not my last.  I remember arriving at Fort Irwin for the first time.  It was in the middle of nowhere and it was DRY and HOT.  Really HOT!

What is an Observer Controller in the Army?

The mission of an OCT is to observe units during training exercises, to control the training unit’s environment and to provide feedback during the after-action review (AAR).

Here’s another definition:

The OCT shadows a unit, serving as a mirror to the platoon’s leadership to see if they have any needs, to see their successes and failures, and to provide feedback to the unit and its leadership about how well they did or didn’t do on a scenario. “We do an after-action review after each scenario or set of exercises, so the unit learns to correct their actions.”

My Experience as an Observer Controller

I definitely didn’t know what to expect or what to do. I reported to my building, got the keys to my living quarters and started my classroom instruction the following day.

The training class was very informative and helpful.  It taught me what my duties were and how I should go about doing them.

At the end of different events in the Field Training Exercise, the Observer Controller provides verbal and written feedback to their peer about what went well, what went wrong and what could be improved.  I like to think of it as a one-on-one After Action Review.

My job was to evaluate another Lieutenant.  Her job was to serve as the Support Operations Officer in her Forward Support Company.

During my time “in the box” I spent most of time driving around in my HMMWV and observing the training.  I took notes, observed what happened, and provided feedback.  It was a bit weird providing feedback, since I was so young an inexperienced myself, but I did do my best to be constructive, objective and honest.

I spent most nights sleeping in the desert, on the hood of my HMMWV! By the time the rotation was finished, I had learned a lot.  I learned about NTC, how it works and what to expect.  I also learned a lot about what a Support Operations Officer should and shouldn’t do.  I learned how important Observer Controllers are.  I also learned the art of providing honest and objective feedback, while in a tactful manner.

Overall, the experience as an Observer Controller at the National Training Center was very eye opening and rewarding.  It definitely prepared my “mindset” for when I went with my unit to the National Training Center.  It gave me insights about what to do, what not to do and how to interact with my Observer Controller.

Final Thoughts

If you get the experience to be an Observer Controller, I would highly recommend it.  I believe it will give you a different perspective about leadership and tactics, and help you fine tune your craft.

What do you think?  If you’ve been to the National Training Center as an Observer Controller before, I would love to hear about your experience.  Leave a comment below to share your thoughts. Have a great day.

chuck holmes

Chuck Holmes
Former Army Major (resigned)

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6 thoughts on “National Training Center Observer Controller: My Experience”

  1. WOW! Finding this blog brought back many fond memories. I had the honor to serve two years in the OPFOR as a young Infantry officer and finish my tour with seven months as a DRAGON Team Live Fire OC. Started out evaluating Infantry platoons and transitioned to maintenance management, Dragon 69, OC. Had the intimidating privilege to evaluate a young Captain, BMO, by the name of Abrams. Yea, one of THE Abrams! He was exemplary. Started out in the old M-38A1 jeep and transitioned to a HMMWV. Good days! 1987.

  2. hi, Scorpion 18A Ancient Ancient here. Yes, from Korea DMZ to Irwin as an OC. terrible place to PCS an apprentice lieutenant, but what a smart terrible place to be early 90s before inet. good stuff, Ágo

  3. It’s great to see that you were able to take an assignment you viewed as punishment and turn it into a learning experience. Those really are some of the most valuable experiences we can have – going in with no expectations and coming out surprised with how much you gained. I’ve never been an observer controller in the military, but I have conducted peer evaluations and I find that by assessing others I am able to find my own strengths and weaknesses. By helping someone else better their performance, you can improve yours, too.

  4. A very interesting look into a job situation I wasn't as familiar with. I was particularly intrigued with two things.
    1. Having to evaluate someone of the same rank and similar experience. I haven't seen much of this, but it was a very interesting idea.
    2. Having what looks like a bad assignment and having it be both interesting and enlightening. Those are often the best assignments.

    1. Personally, I like the idea of peer evaluations. If you are open minded you can learn a lot from it. I’ve also found that many of the worst assignments (initially) turn out to be the best ones.

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