September 4, 2007

Portsmouth Guard unit is ready for Iraq

Spc. Adam Barnes of Virginia Beach locks in on mock enemy forces during an exercise at Camp Shelby, Miss. (Photo by STEPHEN M. KATZ, Courtesy of the THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT)

By Louis Hansen
Courtesy of the Virginian-Pilot

HATTIESBURG, Miss. Snipers and roadside bombs spiked the dirt and gravel route through the swamps at Camp Shelby.

Staff Sgt. Jonathan Messick barked a string of orders to his three-man crew above the growling gears of their Humvee: “All right, here we go – this is it!”

Messick, a Virginia National Guardsman, and his soldiers rode in the middle of a convoy in the final weeks of training for missions that will take them through Iraqi villages.

The soldiers in the Humvee are typical for the Portsmouth-based unit: The oldest is 29 and the youngest, 21. They have a mix of combat savvy and inexperience. Two are college students and one is a security officer at a nuclear power plant.

Others in the 500-soldier unit include police officers , teachers and construction workers.

In less than three weeks, the part-time warriors will become full-time soldiers in Kuwait and Iraq to complete a year long tour of duty.

“We’re all anxious,” Messick said, “and ready to go.”

Since late June, soldiers from the 2nd Squadron 183rd Cavalry of the Virginia National Guard have trained together in the Mississippi swamps. In the stultifying heat and humidity, rigorous full-contact drills – starting at dawn and lasting into nighttime firefights – have replaced the soldiers’ walkabout weekend drills back home.

Many signed up with the National Guard for the extra paycheck and patriotic swell of serving the country. Now they must absorb the fine details of fighting a war – conducting mounted patrols, identifying and evading IEDs, knowing when to pull the trigger.

Turning them into combat warriors is no simple task. Will three months of training be enough?

State governors and military analysts have criticized the Army for the heavy toll on the Army National Guard. Long-term deployments have taken people and equipment away from states that needed reservists for natural disasters and other emergencies.

But the Army has done well training Guard soldiers for Iraq missions, according to John Pike, director of military research Web site Globalsecurity.org.

The war is being fought between small units of soldiers and insurgents, he said, and coordinating small units is easier than a large-scale battlefield operation .

Like students studying for a final exam, Pike said, the Army has focused on the skills needed for Iraq. “They’ve figured out which of these lessons is going to be on the test,” he said.

The 183rd Cavalry draws most of its troops from Hampton Roads, drilling at armories in Portsmouth, Virginia Beach and Suffolk. A Colorado unit recently supplemented the 183rd.

All troops are expected to know what the Army calls basic warrior skills, such as handling automatic weapons and providing first aid. In the last weeks of training before a deployment, small units such as Messick’s are combined into the larger convoy.

The 2nd Squadron 183rd Cavalry will deploy to Kuwait, where Charlie Troop, about one-third of the force, will conduct convoy security into Iraq.

The soldiers will patrol a stretch of highway in southern Iraq, looking for roadside bombs and insurgents targeting supply convoys heading to forward bases.

Maj. Bill Korsen, the unit’s executive officer, said three months is enough to prepare. The usual two weeks of annual training and regular monthly drills have kept the unit sharp, he said.

About one-third of the soldiers have fought in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Spc. Adam Barnes, a 25-year-old from Virginia Beach, served with an artillery unit for 15 months in Iraq. He saw action in the bloody battle of Fallujah.

“I was in areas I didn’t want to be in,” he said.

But the experience has made it easier for his second deployment, he said. He returns as an assistant chaplain with the cavalry. But even as a member of the headquarters staff, Barnes must hone his combat skills.

He pulled gunner duty on a recent day with a mounted patrol, shooting targets with his M-4 carbine from atop the Humvee. This round of training has been more realistic than before his first deployment, he said.

“We’re always training,” he said. “It’s needed.”

As the war has progressed, the Army has added more realistic scenarios, building small-scale Iraq villages and a replica of Kuwait Naval Base in the Mississippi swamp. Prayer calls burst from speakers above Arab towns. Broken vehicles and trash litter the simulated war-torn villages. At times, Iraqi nationals participate in drills, speaking Arabic and playing the roles of sheiks and civilians.

The Army has poured millions of dollars into Camp Shelby, a sprawling rural base similar to Fort Pickett in Blackstone, Va., to make it a final training point for combat-bound troops.

Lt. Col. Chuck Jackson, acting brigade commander at Camp Shelby, said the training readies soldiers for the first 30 days of combat.

Post-mobilization training, which had lasted up to nine months, has been shortened depending on the unit and mission, Jackson said. The Army has compensated by making training more focused.

Trainers receive actual battlefield intelligence and can work new enemy methods into training scenarios within three weeks, he said.

The biggest changes have come from the ever-evolving use of roadside bombs. It’s a central theme at Shelby. “What is the biggest killer on the battlefield?” Jackson asked rhetorically. “IEDs.”

Cavalry soldiers say they are satisfied with the work-ups and want to get on with the mission.

“Is it ever enough training?” asked Capt. Paul Gravely. He shook his head. “No.”

He added, “You always want to raise it to another level, but we’re prepared.”

Cpl. Daron Regan, who joined the Guard last summer, said training has changed his life. He lost nearly 60 pounds and qualified as a combat medic.

The 43 -year-old enlisted in the Army at 17 and remembers his first training. The drill sergeants were Vietnam veterans and aimed to beat fresh troops into becoming good grunts.

He prefers today’s course – a thinking, total warrior. “It’s a different Army,” Regan said.

The training can be intense and fraught with failure.

Messick and his crew drove through several different scenarios to identify and avoid roadside bombs, including the newest, deadlier version.

On one dusty road, trainers concealed five IEDs along a heavily wooded two-mile stretch.

As the convoy pushed ahead, the crew shouted out hot spots. They stared through the haze and the mirages and took notes. After finishing the route, the soldiers gathered around a trainer and reported what they saw.

“Not too bad,” said the instructor, Staff Sgt. Samuel Barber. He

nodded with mild encouragement.

The 30 soldiers in the convoy had spotted two of the five IEDs. “In theater, they’re not going to make it so easy,” Barber said.

He told the soldiers not to worry too much. The instructors wanted them to miss all five.

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