By Juliet Macur
FORT DIX, N.J., Dec. 22 - As a convoy of Humvees crawled down a sandy, bumpy road, a bomb exploded. Inside one vehicle, the gunner collapsed.
"We have a casualty down and wounded," a sergeant yelled into his radio handset. "We need a medical evac and helicopter."
Specialist Jeffery Kavanaugh, 21, the gunner, lay motionless, still breathing but gurgling. The driver tossed him a bandage. No one else in the vehicle moved to help.
Later, recalling those moments, Specialist Kavanaugh said he wondered what would have happened if this were Iraq, not a training exercise in the pine forests of New Jersey. "If I was really hurt, would they let me just die there?" he said.
The Bush administration has announced troop reductions, and some politicians in Washington are debating whether the United States should pull out altogether. But none of that matters to the men of the 654th Military Police Company, a newly formed unit of the Virginia Army National Guard. Their reality is that American soldiers are still needed to patrol the streets of Iraq, and within a few weeks this patchwork company will be doing just that.
"If there has been ups and downs in the news about the war, we haven't noticed," said Capt. Lowell Nevill, the 654th's commander. "We're in another world here."
For two months, the group of 157 veterans and rookies has lived on Tiger Base, a 30-acre re-creation of Iraq at Fort Dix, one of two bases in the United States that offers an immersion course for new security forces, said Lt. Col. Norberto Cintron, who is in charge of the training.
They awaken before 5 a.m. and hear Muslim prayer calls five times a day. They eat flavorless food, use portable toilets and sleep on cots, 12 to a tent. In military exercises, simulated grenades and improvised explosive devices, or I.E.D.'s, explode, and soldiers like Specialist Kavanaugh dramatize severe or fatal wounds.
Despite the emphasis on physical preparation, the trainers and soldiers at Fort Dix say the most important skills they will learn here are loyalty and teamwork, which will help them survive a year at war.
"None of us thought we were going to be able to come together and do this," said Pfc. Michael Goodrich, 19, who had straight A's in high school and gave up college basketball scholarships to join the National Guard last year. "After awhile, we pretty much gave up complaining, because we realized we were stuck with each other for a year.
"It's just like working together on a basketball team. But being on a basketball team won't get you killed; going to Iraq just might."
The 654th arrived here in early November, a mixture of men - whites, blacks, Asians and Hispanics from different economic backgrounds - plucked from more than 10 National Guard units from Virginia and pieced together to form a unit big enough to serve as a military police company in Iraq.
Like a weekend softball team, these men represented a range of ages (19 to 50), athleticism (college athletes to couch potatoes) and professional backgrounds (including policemen, a cook and a dog trainer). Most came from field artillery units. Some, slightly less than 10 percent, had served in Iraq and volunteered to return.
Captain Nevill, 33, who has a bachelor's degree in cultural anthropology from the University of Virginia, is in charge of this unit. At home, he is a patrolman for the Manassas Police Department. Here, he is responsible for these men.
In the shared misery of Tiger Base, Captain Nevill said, he saw his soldiers transformed from individuals to a cohesive unit, especially after a grueling transition to military life: limited sleep and no days off. Many of his men contracted nagging coughs or upper respiratory infections, particularly when temperatures dipped into single digits and the tent heaters stopped working.
"We're not running or lifting weights, but we're athletes of another kind," Captain Nevill said, wearing his required helmet and bulletproof vest. "It's endurance and toughness. It takes the body a long time to get used to that."
Although the gym often goes unused, soldiers work out during drills more mental than physical. The training for the Guard has evolved. Units deployed early in the war sometimes received a week or two of training. Now, the training for security forces at specialized sites like Fort Dix lasts at least two months and includes more complex simulations.
But the 654th will not know how prepared it is until it comes under live fire.
"What's going to take them to get with the program is a bullet whizzing by their head or an I.E.D. blowing up next to them," said Sgt. First Class Donald Wilson, a trainer here who likened this work to his days as an adult league basketball coach. Only then, Sergeant Wilson said, will they find out "how good a team they've become."
Every day, convoys from the 654th roll through a makeshift Iraqi city with hidden threats. When the men see the sign "The City of Balad Welcomes You," gunners grasp their M-249's and 50-caliber machine guns.
The convoys pass a blue mosque and aluminum shipping containers made to look like buildings, each spray-painted with Arabic or English phrases like "Go home USA." Sometimes snipers shoot blanks at the Humvees, inciting a simulated firefight.
Civilians, including Iraqis living in the United States, occasionally linger in the streets like movie extras. Some are instructed to look friendly and wave, others to grimace and yell in Arabic.
Soldiers must react to cues: Purple smoke means a rocket-propelled grenade has hit, white means a roadside bomb. And when a trainer hands a soldier like Specialist Kavanaugh a pocket-size card describing an injury or death, he must act the part.
The first time Pvt. Christian Chandler, 20, traveled through Fort Dix's Balad, he was a nervous wreck. Hoping to become a cosmetologist or a massage therapist, he joined the Guard to earn extra money and then trained to be an administrative specialist. Now he is a gunner, which he said, "surprised and shocked and scared me" because gunners are vulnerable.
Private Chandler said he felt sick when he saw the Arabic words for "Stop or I will shoot" written phonetically on the windshield of his vehicle so he could memorize them. He was so skittish, he once lost control of a Humvee and plowed into a tree.
His team leader, Sgt. Jamie Padgett, said Private Chandler was initially unwilling to pop out of the gunner's hatch. "We had to pretty much push him up there," he said.
As weeks went on, Private Chandler convinced himself he could be a worthy gunner because he was athletic. He played high school basketball in Smithville, Va., though as a senior his team lost every game. In the final weeks here, he began wearing a black ski mask, revealing only his eyes, to keep warm and to look menacing. One day, he picked up his machine gun and growled.
"Do I look mean now?" he said, before laughing.
Going Back to Look for Revenge
Not everyone in the 654th is a rookie. About a dozen have served in Iraq in the same tightly knit engineering unit. They returned from a yearlong deployment in March after losing two men on Dec. 21, 2004, when a suicide bomber blew himself up in a dining hall in Mosul. The returning soldiers volunteered for this mission out of loyalty to their buddies.
Sgt. Jon Faulkner was friends with those soldiers, both 20, and took it hard when they died. He said all he could think about was returning to Iraq, where he could help protect less experienced men in his new unit. He keeps rereading a poem another soldier sent in an e-mail message to him, including these lines:
This is the life I have to live. This is the soul to the Devil I give. You have your parties and drink your beer While young men are dying over here.
"I'm here kind of for revenge," said Sergeant Faulkner, a 21-year-old archaeology student. "I'll keep going to Iraq until the war is over."
Sergeant Faulkner, from Fredericksburg, Va., said that as a boy he was the target of bullies but that he grew into an aggressive young man. He played on two state championship soccer teams in high school, then joined the National Guard because, he said, "I love getting shot at and I love shooting back."
He is serious about his work, always giving orders, hardly smiling. His commanders say he is a good soldier. Still, his colleagues shy away from asking him about Iraq because they are afraid to upset him.
When his fellow soldiers said goodbye to their families in October, Sergeant Faulkner said, he wanted the emotional moments to end. "Let's get boots on the ground," Faulkner recalled thinking, "so we can kill something."
'We're Basically Dinosaurs'
Specialist David Newton worried about the naïve, overzealous and hardheaded young soldiers - both rookies and veterans - he saw when he arrived at Fort Dix.
"These guys will need me as a medic," said Specialist Newton, 40, a cook and college student from Chesterfield, Va., who re-enlisted in the National Guard in 2004 after a 10-year break. "Before I left, I made a promise to some of these young guys' wives that I'd bring their husbands home in one piece. Well, maybe not in one piece, but they'll come home."
Specialist Newton and Guardsmen like him, many with active-duty experience, weather jokes about being old enough to have had Moses as a boot-camp instructor and about their lack of technological expertise. But they have developed a paternal bond with the rookies.
Staff Sgt. Lee Stanford, 50, a former Marine Corps chief warrant officer nicknamed Old School, said, "It takes all types to make a good squad. Not everybody has to be 19 and in perfect shape to be a good team player." His job, he said, was to bring his 12-man squad home.
Sgt. Ernest Grigsby, 39, who is unmarried and has no children, is out of shape but said he had nothing to lose by going to Iraq so "some 20-year-old wouldn't have to die or lose his legs."
While keeping a Humvee warm for officers during a seven-hour training exercise one night at Fire Base Falluja, Specialist Newton said, "We're basically dinosaurs here, but I really do believe they need us for our experience and patience."
Outside, the wind and freezing temperatures cut through the soldiers' Gore-Tex jackets, reddened their faces and numbed their hands. The gunners aimed for pop-up targets glowing in the dark. The barrage of gunfire echoed as tracer rounds zoomed like red lasers.
Trainers were also simulating an attack on the base, detonating fake mortars every few minutes, causing blinding flashes and deafening blasts.
"I'm not going to lie to you, 90 percent of us are apprehensive about going to Iraq," Specialist Newton said as another mortar hit. "We'd be crazy if we weren't."
To relieve stress, he smokes two packs of cigarettes daily, cracks jokes and serenades his buddies with songs from Elvis Presley films like "Harum Scarum" and "Kissin' Cousins." But at night in his bunk, he becomes solemn.
"Every day I think about the chances of these kids dying there," Specialist Newton said. "It's my burden. In the end, I'll watch their back, and I hope they'll watch mine."
Anxious, but Ready
The 654th completed its final test this week. On one day, the men reacted to six car bombs, two incoming mortars, two roadside bombs, one rocket-propelled grenade and several hand-thrown grenades, resulting in a total of seven casualties.
After one of those exercises, one of the trainers, Sgt. First Class Tony Paden, told them, "You guys stay tight, stay a good team, because you're going to need each other to stay alive over there." The soldiers stood in the biting wind, faces drawn, camouflage uniforms dirty, knowing those words were true.
By this time, they also knew what to expect: death or injuries, maybe lost limbs. Their wives or girlfriends could leave them. They could welcome newborns, not by touch but by e-mail.
"You can see it in their eyes that they are scared," said Sergeant Wilson, the trainer. "But it's good to be scared. Nothing brings a group of guys closer than sharing the same fear."
The men were given nine days' leave to spend the holidays with their families. Private Chandler, the reluctant gunner, planned to take his girlfriend to dinner at an Applebee's. Specialist Newton, the veteran, wanted to embrace his wife. Sergeant Faulkner, the serious soldier, hated the thought of wasting time. Private Goodrich, the basketball player who had three friends die in Iraq, left early to marry Jacqueline McCown in Richmond on Christmas Eve.
Early next month, each soldier in the 654th will return alone to Fort Dix and begin packing for Iraq. Soon after, they will board a flight together, their world now shrunk to a team of 157 men.