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Posted: May 10, 2009 12:01 a.m.

Training at Camp Shelby

A Day with the Georgia National Guard

By Gabriel Khouli/

Troops wait for the go-ahead, before they proceed to the next stage in their live ammunition training.

I heard an explosion behind me and turned in time to see smoke issuing from a pickup truck that had been crashed into the National Guard headquarters in this small Afghan village. Soldiers and Afghan villagers were running and yelling and a handful of wounded people were strewn around the blast radius.

Luckily no U.S. soldiers were injured, but they were busy attending to Afghan soldiers and villagers who had been standing nearby when the suicide bomber attacked. A helicopter was called in to airlift some of the more severely wounded, while others were bandaged and sent home.

After the area had been cleared a small group of Afghans returned to the headquarters and began yelling at the troops. They attempted to tip over the exploded pick up and kicked the U.S. military Humvees as they passed by. The situation was getting tense.

“They (the U.S. soldiers) haven’t figured out what’s wrong yet,” said John L. Smith, Commander of the 158th Infantry Brigade. “They haven’t identified the leader (of the group) and told him what’s happened to the villager’s families.”

That was the key to this scenario. The National Guard troops had cleared the area and treated the wounded, but they hadn’t properly communicated with the remaining villagers. It’s a mistake the troops will learn from and a mistake Smith said they’re being trained to avoid in Afghanistan.

“If they (the soldiers) treat Afghan civilians the wrong way, they could end up (with more of these incidents),” Smith said. “If they treat them well and respect them then (their mission will be more successful).”

The suicide bombing scenario above was one of the training events that local media and legislators experienced first hand on Friday as part of a National Guard Media Day at Camp Shelby, Miss., the largest state-owned training site in the nation at more than 134,000 acres. We got to see troops in action as they finished their last month of training in preparation for June’s deployment to Afghanistan.

The Afghan village above is part of an effort to thoroughly train the troops in combat tactics and cross-cultural communications. This infantry brigade’s mission is to travel to Afghanistan and train the locals to become a self-sufficient police and military force. In order to do that successfully they need to understand the culture and language and they to practice their mission in as realistic of a setting as possible.

With only a few gravel roads, signs in English and Arabic, road barriers and checkpoints, afghan villages and residents and 90 degree heat, Camp Shelby resembled a different country, even if it wasn’t quite the treacherous terrain of Afghanistan. As we traveled into the camp on a gravel road, through a heavily wooded area, I half-expected our vehicle caravan to be ambushed by Taliban fighters or struck by a roadside bomb.

In addition to the village scenario, we also got to attend the live-fire training, where the soldiers practiced engaging the enemy with live ammunition. They practiced entering and clearing buildings, using detonators to blow open doors and shooting enemy soldier targets within the buildings and across the open fields. After being given Kevlar suits, helmets and ear plugs, we got to follow behind the troops as they progressed across the training field.

I’ve never seen a military exercise before and my previous paintball experience paled in comparison.

After taking off my heavy gear, I felt a good bit lighter. But that was short lived as lunch followed, with the ever-popular, MREs, calorie-packed Meals Ready to Eat. I was really looking forward to trying one of these, because I had heard so much talk of them before. I tried the spaghetti with meat sauce and to tell you the truth it wasn’t bad. However, in the spirit of full disclosure, I’ll eat most anything, and I didn’t have to eat these on a regular basis for several months.

I actually failed to properly prepare my MRE. The main course is designed to heated up regardless of location, by placing the main course package into a special green sleeve and pouring water into the sleeve package setting off a chemical reaction. You put the sleeve into the original cardboard box, wait five to 10 minutes and voila, you have a hot meal. But not me. Apparently, I didn’t wrap properly place the sleeve into the cardboard box, because much of the water leaked out and I was left with partially heated spaghetti. I ate it anyway.

There was quite a bit to the meal including a cookie, crackers with peanut butter, a pop-tart and raisons. I didn’t finish it all, because the meals are designed for soldiers who are expending a large amount of energy working in their heavy gear.

We also had a chance to talk to the soldiers during lunch, and I asked them their MRE preferences: each one had their favorite, including Chili Mac, Tuna and Chicken Noodle. On the other end, I was told to avoid anything with egg in it. I didn’t ask for any more details.

Some of the troops chose their meal based on the side dishes and deserts instead of the main entrée and as a result a lot of trading ensued. Crackers and peanut butter for a cookie. Mango-flavored apple sauce for … anything. Overall, I was surprised by the variety of choices.

Many of the other members of the media, especially the video crews were actually interviewing troops, but I just ate with them and chatting and chatted for the most part. I asked them where they were from: most from Georgia, some from other states. I asked them why they joined the National Guard: for country, to continue a family tradition, for a job and money or to pay for college. I asked them how many times they had been deployed: for some it was their fifth deployment, for others it their first.

Some were excited, some were nervous, some just were. Many  appeared to be tired and going through the motions, which is to be expected when dealing with the media in the middle of months of training.

Some had wives and kids and some didn’t, but none of them seemed particularly scared or worried.

They all understood they had a mission to accomplish and that was priority number one.

“I’m excited to get to work, to go out and accomplish our mission,” said Specialist Darrell Hubbard Jr., a Salem Road resident who is on his first deployment. “I joined for the benefits and to continue college, but most of all I joined to support my country. I’m looking forward to training the Afghan military and the national police.”

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