Back to the Front: Learning from the Vets

With two Fort Stewart brigades already deployed to Iraq, the men and woman of the 4th Brigade spent the past month training in the Mojave Desert at Fort Irwin to further prepare. That training especially helps the soldiers who've never deployed to Iraq.

At the end of their day, soldiers at the National Training Center have nowhere to go but their tents. They clean their weapons, play games on their laptops and talk about Iraq. Those who haven't been there listen to those who have.

"I try to listen every time they start telling stories, because they mostly state the facts and no too much propaganda," said Cpl. Rondell Dunmore. "I try to learn from that."

PV2 Ryan Shurtleff told us, "That's all I have to work on since I haven't been there."

Staff Sgt. Robert Smith is heading to his fourth deployment to Iraq. "The majority of these guys are new and don't have the experience the other group did, so it's going to be different," he told us.

"Talking to other soldiers who've been to the region, they tell me this National Training Center is exactly how it will be over there in Iraq," said Master Sgt. Betty Perry-Boehm.

That's why the missions put on by the 4th Brigade come directly from today's challenges.

"A group of insurgents stole Iraqi army uniforms, Iraqi army vehicles and snuck into the JCC," said Capt. Peter Hurgronje.

"For the most part, I think they do a pretty good job of replicating what we've seen in Iraq before and what we think we'll see in Iraq again," said Alpha Company Commander Capt. Eric Tisland, on his second Iraq deployment.

Commanders say the pressures fabricated at NTC will be real in Iraq.

"We can't get past the fact we know we're still in America," noted Lt. Col. Tim Newsome, commander of the 3-7 Infantry. "Even if you throw yourself into a situation, you know you're still in America and there are no real live bullets flying. But 70 percent of the benefit comes from facing these situations here to prepare yourself for when there are bullets flying."

To further prepare them, instructors keep living and eating conditions tougher than they'll see in Iraq. "You and I are sitting in a tent with winds outside whipping around at 30 mph creating noise and blowing sand. In country, we'll be in hard stand barracks most likely built with bricks and mortar. Living conditions will be better and the duty day won't be as compressed as here in this environment."

Commanders say the time at Fort Irwin prepares their soldiers like nothing else.

"This brigade is extremely prepared, based on the experiences here," said Col. Thomas James, who commands the 4th Brigade. "We have awesome soldiers who are a valuable asset to our country and work very hard every day and are passionate about their jobs. It shows here and will show in Iraq."

While some brigades deployed with no time to train here, members of 4th Brigade are glad for the opportunity.

"You can never be too trained for when live bullets are flying over your head," noted Pfc. Michael Slocum.

The 4th Brigade is now scheduled to leave for Iraq in September. Like the other brigades, they expect to serve approximately 15 months before returning home.

Reported by: Dal Cannady,