View Full Version : Citizen-soldiers step up training for Iraq

05-11-08, 07:45 AM
May 11, 2008
Citizen-soldiers step up training for Iraq

Courier-Post Staff

A Burlington City poultry plant supervisor, a West Deptford operating room technician, a Mount Laurel mail carrier and a Haddonfield high school dropout are among the 2,850 New Jersey soldiers now one step closer to a prison in Iraq.

They are mostly citizen-soldiers, leaving jobs and families behind in the largest deployment of the New Jersey National Guard since World War II. Most will be responsible for "detainee operations," meaning they will be jailers handling security where alleged enemy combatants are imprisoned.

In preparation, they recently finished three weeks of pre-mobilization training at a sprawling fort in central Pennsylvania. They jumped through an obstacle course, they practiced sticking intravenous needles into their comrades' veins and they shot machine guns while donning gas masks.

They also text-messaged girlfriends back home, traded smack talk about North versus South Jersey and munched on hot dogs from a lunch truck during down time at the firing range.

For the soldiers from the 50th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, the mood was focused but relaxed. In June they head to Fort Bliss, Texas, for further training, and by the fall they will be in Iraq.

"Every soldier who signs up makes a commitment to do their service," said Col. Steven Ferrari of Berlin Township, a 27-year military veteran and the commander of the 50th IBCT. "It's just amazing to see the faces of these young soldiers."

The force, which includes 250 women, represents half of the entire New Jersey National Guard, and includes soldiers from 328th Military Police Company in Cherry Hill and from the 1-114th Infantry Battalion in Woodbury. Two companies in Michigan are also joining them.

Their duty as prison guards has taken on new meaning since the prisoner-abuse scandal in 2004 at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. At training last month, soldiers sometimes played a game during down time where they tried to quell a riot by "prisoners," played by other soldiers.

But the jokes end there. Sgt. Karl Cheney of Riverside, who has been to Iraq twice, said he would "turn anyone in" if they pulled a stunt like the soldiers at Abu Ghraib.

"I've got too much riding on it," he said.

Otherwise, soldiers say there's little talk of politics.

Cheney, more of a classic G.I. Joe-looking soldier than many of his compatriots, struck a middle-of-the-road political tone.

"I don't think cutting and run is the right answer, and I don't think what we've been doing is the right answer either, but there's gotta be something in between," he said. "I'd hate to see all the progress we've made there go to waste."

A Haddonfield native who dropped out of high school before joining the military, Cheney believes the United States has made more progress in Iraq than people think.

"I'd almost take my family there for vacation," he said. "Almost."

Not all soldiers will be jailers. Others could provide support by transporting prisoners, doing logistics to move equipment, crunching numbers in the financial office or purifying water.

About 2,600 of these soldiers will be split between Baghdad and Umm Qasr, in the southeast corner of the country near Iran and Kuwait. The rest will operate out of the Balad Air Base northwest of Baghdad.

The experience at Fort Indiantown Gap allowed soldiers to simulate what they'll face in Iraq, so life's little favorites -- alcohol, freedom to leave the base and "friendly relations" with the opposite sex, as Cheney put it, were banned.

Soldiers carried their M4 rifles with them at all times, even keeping them at their feet as they ate, just as they will in Iraq. Before entering a building, each soldier pointed the barrel of the gun into a cardboard box or metal trash can to make sure the chamber was clear.

And a bevy of watchful, armed bodyguards shadowed the commanding officer, Ferrari, as he was interviewed in the temporary 700-seat mess hall -- indicative of the fact that his head could be a prize for an insurgent.

Ferrari, who has a 19-year-old son in basic training, smiled as he recounted that earlier in the day he helped an 18-year-old private from Camden on the shooting range.

"The dedication and commitment -- these soldiers have it," he said.

Days at the 17,000-acre National Guard training facility were long, just as they will be in Iraq -- beginning as early as 5:30 and ending as late as 1 a.m.

"Anyone who doesn't wake up, we wake them up with a hug," Cheney said, smiling. "That's the nicest way to put it."

Morning exercise involved running and push-ups, sometimes led by the lower-ranking soldiers themselves.

Driver training often followed, with soldiers learning how to navigate a truck or Humvee through turns, hills and the ever-present roadside bombs.

At combat lifesaver training, soldiers had to perform the particularly unsettling job of hooking up an intravenous tube to the veins of their fellow soldiers. By the end, most successfully qualified as combat lifesavers.

At the shooting range, they trained with a series of weapons, and learned how to shoot at night or while donning a gas mask.

"Are we ready on the right?" yells an officer from the guard tower on the shooting range.

"The right is ready!" responds an instructor in a bright orange vest.

"Are we ready on the left?"

"The left is ready!"

"Begin firing!"

The soldiers, belly flat on the floor with an instructor at the side, fire their weapons at cardboard cutouts looming beyond a series of dirt mounds.

But it wasn't all down and dirty. A three-day program taught higher-ranking soldiers about the region of the Middle East, its people and culture.

A scholar from the conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute gave an overview of the political situation, and two soldiers speaking in Spanish simulated the experience of talking to local leaders through an Arabic translator.

About 15,000 American military personnel have undergone this three-day training. "The leaders then turn around and train their key soldiers," said retired Army Col. Bob Tomasovic, who runs the programs.

Of course, military life isn't all business. The mood in the World War II-era barracks -- 30 men on the first floor, 30 on the second, and women in their own barracks by 9 p.m. -- was decidedly relaxed: Beds were moved around, camouflage tarps were draped over bunks for added privacy. It was far from the formality and structure of the Marines' basic training at Paris Island.

They played Spades, read books, watched DVDs on portable players, smoked cigarettes like they're going out of style and stay tethered to their cell phones.

Like about a quarter of the state's National Guard soldiers, Cheney has already been to Iraq. The first time he drove a tank ("you drive with a sense of purpose, like you know where you're going"), and the second time he was a military policeman.

"It's always a pleasure to serve God and country," he said.

Cheney spent part of the time in Sadr City, an insurgent stronghold and the "most overcrowded, disgusting, sewage-filled slum."

"Not too many friendly faces -- it was fun," he said.

There seems to be little that Cheney doesn't love about the Army. He even memorized what's inside every numbered MRE -- the famously bland "Meal Ready to Eat." And he says his training at Fort Indiantown Gap was longer and more thorough than anything he had experienced before.

The veterans of the conflict tend to advise the newer soldiers, giving them an idea of what to expect.

Sgt. 1st Class Mike Colbert, 37, of Washington Township, patrols the streets of Evesham as a police officer when he's not at war, and he was injured during his last tour in the country.

"I know a lot of these guys will change -- not all bad, it matures you," he said. "You see things you don't see walking around in this haze here. It can be good, but it can also smoke your brain out."

He describes war like this: "Imagine your life being a constant Tuesday. I don't say Monday, because that implies you had a day off yesterday."

But that doesn't mean it's all bad. Veterans say the media doesn't always get it right.

"There are people who want to be helped there," said Staff Sgt. John Archer of Collingswood, who has been deployed twice. "You see all of these dead soldiers, sailors and airmen. It's a war. After five years of war, 4,000 (dead Americans) is not that many . . . If you don't understand the sacrifice, then you have no business wearing the uniform."

Reach Matt Katz at (856) 486-2456 or mkatz@courierpostonline.com