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Minnesotans prepare for war

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Cody Messner says he's looking forward to going to Iraq, serving his time and coming home. He says he's focused on the mission ahead but acknowledges the sobering reality that he'll soon be in a war zone where the targets shoot back. (MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik)
The Minnesota Army National Guard's First Brigade Combat Team is preparing for deployment to Iraq. Of the brigade's 4,000 soldiers, 2,600 are from Minnesota. The men and women are expected to ship out to Iraq this spring. They're going through training in southern Mississippi at Camp Shelby.

Hattiesburg, Miss. — Had Cody Messner, 20, not been called up for duty in Iraq, he would be at home in the southern Minnesota town of Winthrop roofing and remodeling houses and doing other construction work.

Instead, Messner is at a military post in Mississippi learning how to fire a machine gun from a Humvee.

Messner is perched in a rotating gun ring that allows him to quickly swivel in any direction. His M-249 Squad Automatic Weapon is loaded with live ammunition. The "SAW" as soldiers call it, can fire 750 rounds a minute and is accurate at targets more than six football fields away.

Private first class Messner is in full battle gear; camouflage fatigues, a Kevlar helmet, 35 pounds of body armor. Goggles and a chin guard shield his face.

"OK, and once you're on there, three to five round bursts. You can even bump it up to five to eight rounds, but a good killing burst," commands Camp Shelby instructor Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Gustafson.

Even among southern Mississippi's rolling hills, tall grass and abundance of pine trees, Messner -- his gun, and Humvee -- look like a scene from Iraq.

That's the point of the Ground Assault Convoy training.

"We try to bring the scenarios and make them as life-like as possible," Gustafsun says. "Of course there's no return fire but right now we're more concerned with building their confidence not only in their weaponry but also as a crew," Gustafsun says. Messner appears confident but also cautious as the lets loose with the SAW. Bullets fly from the gun and shell casings litter the back of his Humvee. Tracers on every fifth round show Messner is hitting his mechanized pop-up targets. One exchange simulates a group of Iraqi insurgents poised to launch rocket propelled grenades at a military convoy. Another, a hostile truck in the distance.

"So far, I really love the training," Messner says. "It's very good training and it's good to be consistent at it. That way you get it embedded in you mind, what you're doing and you don't have to think about what you're doing."

After the exercise, Sgt. 1st Class Gustafson congratulates Messner and two other soldiers, also from southern Minnesota, who were down below the gunner's ring in the front seat of the humvee.

Gustufson also warns all three to constantly be on guard for improvised explosive devices. These IEDS have proven deadly for hundreds of U.S. troops in Iraq.

"The reason we teach you that here is because when you're in theatre, small arms fire is not the biggest threat over there. It's the IED's," Gustafsun says. "And if he's down, and if an IED goes off, it's going to work to his advantage. It'll save him and then, if there's small arms contact, he's got plenty of time to come up and get on it with it."

Messner says he's looking forward to going to Iraq, serving his time and coming home. He says he's focused on the mission ahead but acknowledges the sobering reality that he'll soon be in a war zone where the targets shoot back.

Prior to 9/11, National Guard soldiers like those of the 1st Brigade were labeled "weekend-warriors." There was no expectation of combat. Not any more.

From Winthrop, Minn., Cody's mother, Kimberly Messer has a difficult time talking about the fact that her son is headed for Iraq.

"I have my good days and bad days and right now is not so bad," Kimberly Messner says. "But I know once I know he's over there, it's going to be different. Very hard. Because he's going to miss out on a lot of things here because my youngest son graduates in May and Cody won't be around for that. I'll just miss him a lot."

Military officials won't say exactly how many Minnesota soldiers like Messner are currently training at Camp Shelby, or provide specifics about when the men and women will leave for Iraq or what they'll do there.

It's all couched in general terms: About 2600 Minnesota troops will ship out next spring. They'll primarily work security operations and likely concentrate on transportation.

Col. David Elicerio, a Ham Lake resident, is the Commander of the Minnesota Guard's First Brigade Combat Team and is responsible for the unit's training.

"We're getting real close," says Elicerio of the deployment timeline. "It's in the spring. There's no doubt about it. About the time the basketball tournaments are getting over back in Minnesota you should see movement within the First Brigade. I'm not about to say exactly which bases in Iraq we're ready to move to because we're still studying the possibility of which ones they'll be."

Elicerio says there's no such thing as enough-time for combat training. Still he says he's confident his brigade will be ready for Iraq after it's completed it's roughly six-months.

Camp Shelby opened to prepare troops for combat in World War I. It grew to be the largest military training facility in the world during World War II when, at one point, more than 100,000 soldiers shared the space. Smaller now, the training grounds still sprawl over more than 200 square miles. That's an area nearly twice the size of Minneapolis and St. Paul proper.

The Department of Defense brought Camp Shelby into the war on terrorism in the spring of 2004.

By the time the Minnesota brigade leaves, about 18,000 soldiers, most of them guard and reserve troops, will have completed their mobilization ramp-up there.

Located about 60 miles north of the Gulf of Mexico, signs of Hurricane Katrina damage are evident throughout the post. There are downed trees and tarps cover portions of damaged roofs.

Brig. Gen. Rick Erlandson commands the division under which the First Brigade falls. He says Camp Shelby is in much better shape now than it was when the Minnesota soldiers began arriving and that despite the storm damage, Shelby is proving an excellent training ground.

In all aspects of the training, Erlandson says, the latest information on Iraqi insurgency tactics is applied.

"It's very real time, and many of the scenarios that these young soldiers will be exposed to in the training environment where they can learn what to expect when they go into Iraq, are extremely current," Erlandson says. "And they may have occurred just weeks before in Iraq and they implement them in the training scenario here."

An example, Erlandson says, is the way soldiers now train for attacks on their convoys. No longer are they told to stop and fight it out.

"We've learned that is not really a good tactic because once you're stopped, you become vulnerable to the enemy so the tactic they use today is they stay on the move as much as possible. I've seen that change in the training here as well," Erlandson says.

There is also more focus on the threat posed by homemade bombs hidden along side roads or in cars or trucks.

In an effort to make the training as real as possible, Camp Shelby boasts mock-ups of Iraqi towns complete with fake mosques and civilians hired to play the roles of villagers. Some of the camp's roadways are designed to look like routes U.S. convoys frequent in Iraq.

Within earshot of gunfire from the Ground Assault Convoy exerercise other small groups of Minnesota National Guard soldiers engage in a ground patrol exercise. They too are armed with live ammunition.

After successfully shooting up and charging a bunker, the dozen or so young men are forced to retreat when, down range, they encounter overwhelming force; too many mechanized pop-up targets representing Iraqi insurgents.

Specialist Charles Knetter is taking part in the ground patrol training. Knetter enlisted in the National Guard in the spring of 2001 and was not expecting to be serving in Iraq until recently. Absent the call-up, Knetter would have been building and testing snowmobiles at the Polaris plant in Roseau.

Knetter says becoming a full-time soldier wasn't easy. But now, a month and a half into it, he says he's enjoying the training and the camaraderie among new friends who make up his squad.

"For the first week, it was a little different, but now, it's just like every day, going to work, get the job done, get it done," Knetter says. "At the end of the night sit back with your buddies and talk so, it's a lot of fun."

Camp Shelby bustles with activity from the 5:00 a.m. wake-up call to lights out at 10:00 p.m. Complementing the hard-core combat exercises are numerous classroom sessions.

One class is called Iraq 101.

The teacher is Maj. Jake Kulzer, the Brigade's civil affairs officer.

"For the next 45 minutes is have a conversation about who we are dealing with in Iraq," Kulzer tells about 200 soldiers gathered in a large auditorium.

Kulzer advises the commander on how military operations will effect the local population in Iraq and vice-versa.

"In order for us to be successful we need to engage with the Iraqi people," says Kulzer, "We need to listen to them and understand what they need and what's important to them and that's also where we get our intelligence to help find the bad guys and make life difficult for them."

Unlike guard troops before them, military officials say Minnesota's First Brigade will not be bringing many of its own humvees and trucks to the Persian Gulf. Instead, they'll be assigned heavily armored equipment from the troops they are relieving.

Some guard troops have complained they play second fiddle to full-time soldiers when it comes to the quality of their equipment.

Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, who's in charge of all Army Guard and Reserve training east of the Mississippi, insists the First Brigade will not be scavenging for equipment as they do their final stage-up in Kuwait before heading into Iraq.

"This brigade will be equipped as well as, or better than, some of the active duty units that are going into Iraq," Honore says. "This brigade is getting all brand new individual protection equipment. They will get the latest, newest communications equipment that the Army has. As in the case of every brigade that goes they will not get the up-armored Humvees until they get to Kuwait. But there's sufficient numbers of them waiting for them when they arrive in Kuwait."

Downtime at Camp Shelby comes in the evening. Standing in front of his bunk, Travis Crowe, a 25-year-old from Hill City in northern Minn., says when he and other soldiers have free time, they often use it to check in on civilian life.

"Half the people here have cell phones so a lot of guys at night, they spend time on their cell phone calling home. Then we also have Internet access and those of us who have e-mail are able to write to our loved ones back home," Crowe says.

From the top leadership to rank and file soldiers, there appears to be little interest in sitting around and debating the politics of the war. Instead they say they're focused on their mission.

"We usually don't, because whatever we think, it might affect our job and we're just there to do the best job we can," Crowe says.

But 22-year-old combat medic Corey Schmidt of Apple Valley did talk about preparing for a war, when an increasing number of Americans oppose it.

"I think if I would have gone two years ago, it would have been a lot different," Schmidt says. "The majority of the people were really for the war and since the opinions have kind of shifted it just kind of feels a little different. But I also feel that the support is there from the people. They're support the troops even though maybe they oppose the war."

When they're not working, the camp Post Exchange, or PX, is a busy place. Soldiers can buy everything there from cigarettes and beer, to greeting cards and a variety of military items. All of the goods are available at about a 25 percent discount compared to non-military stores.

Whether formally training or not, the soldiers are almost constantly armed, most with M-16 rifles. The weapons are not supposed to be loaded. Still, for safety, every time they enter a building they are required to dry fire their weapons into barrels of sand to make sure the chambers are empty.

To bring in the outside world some soldiers have pooled their money for satellite TV and Internet connections. It's a modern luxury that stands in sharp contrast to their bleak, concrete block barracks which are lined up row after row in the main area of the camp.

Most soldiers bunk nearly three dozen to a barrack. Showers and toilets are located in separate, nearby buildings.

Personal space is either a top or bottom bunk bed and a small amount of storage.

Still, the soldiers interviewed for this report voiced little in the way of criticism of Camp Shelby, beyond pointing out storm damage. That said, there seems to be a feeling among the troops that they might actually find more creature comforts in Iraq than they've come across in Mississippi.

"We hear all these stories that the chow is much better in Iraq," says Staff Sgt. Jacie Swanson, a medic and squad leader from Shoreview. "So that's one thing I and my soldiers are very excited for. Also we hear some of the living conditions are a little bit better and that always builds soldier morale. So I am very excited to get to Iraq. That's also a sign that we're closer to getting home."

Swanson is one of about 200 Minnesota women who'll ship out with the First Brigade. Like most soldiers, Swanson acknowledges she's worried about going to Iraq. But she says she's less concerned now than when she arrived at Camp Shelby.

"Deep inside there's still always an uneasiness about thinking that they're going be flying live rounds at us and being around people that really don't like us," Swanson says. "It's one of those things where you just have to trust the person on your left and your right and, as we go through that training, everyday I build that confidence in my soldiers and the soldiers around me and everyday that uneasiness becomes, a lot, I don't know, a lot more comfortable." Building confidence, and instilling military standards, are exactly why the troops are training for six months.

First Brigade Commander Col. David Elicerio, says adhering to those military standards is key to making it home safely.

"I preach that to the kids every chance I get," Elicerio says. "I bring that up with them and try to explain it to them. I tell them about the mission and I say, 'Listen, all you have to do is hold the standard. I need you to go forward now into Iraq and do the right thing every day.' Consistency is what's going to be the success or the hallmark within this organization. So if everyone of these soldiers out here can just hold that standard for me, we'll come through this thing OK."

Capping off the southern U.S. training for Minnesota's First Brigade will be a month at a fort in Louisiana where the soldiers' newly learned skills will be put to the test for a final review.

Then it's off to Kuwait, and finally on to Iraq.

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