The Galesburg Register-Mail

February 27, 2005

Galesburg guard members finish training, prepare for Iraq

BY Dori Meinert
Copley News Service

FORT DIX, N.J. -- Galesburg-area soldiers manning a checkpoint last week pulled back a roll of razor wire to allow a car to pass. Then, the car exploded, "killing" three of the soldiers and "wounding" another.

Fortunately, the car bomb attack was only a training exercise. But the reality of the situation that they'll soon be facing in Iraq is setting in.

"It drives home that it ain't weekend drills anymore," said Sgt. Kale Burgdorf, 22, of Media, Ill. "This is for real now."

Burgdorf and other members of the Galesburg-based Charlie Battery, 2nd Battalion, 123rd Field Artillery, of the Illinois Army National Guard have spent the past two months at Fort Dix preparing for their imminent deployment to Iraq.

While the Galesburg soldiers do not know exactly when they're leaving, an air of anticipation was felt in the unit this week with their families due to arrive for what is likely to be their final visit before the unit is deployed.

Many Guard members said they are eager to move on. Yet they also are uncertain about what lies ahead.

"I think everybody is getting concerned about what we're getting ready to go do," said Master Sgt. Joe Switzer, 36, a Monmouth police officer in civilian life. "When you train, it gives you confidence in knowing that when you're performing your job, you're doing the best you can..."

The training is particularly important for this unit, which has trained in field artillery back home but will be protecting U.S. military convoys and guarding critical sites in Iraq.

For the past month, the Guard members have been living in a mock-up of a U.S. military camp. At "Tiger Camp," they sleep on cots, 10 to a tent, with only small oil heaters to ward off the frigid February temperatures.

They get two hot meals a day but eat them standing up. Lunches are the dreaded military "meals-ready-to-eat." Showers are a luxury that instructors use as a reward for successful training missions.

The camp was established last year to make training more realistic. The 75-tent encampment is surrounded by a chain link fence and razor wire. Soldiers guard the entrances from unpainted wood towers and sandbagged guardhouses. Five times a day, the Islamic call to prayer is broadcast over loud speakers.

Training occurs around the clock with fake mortar attacks and small arms fire. Arabic-speaking actors play Iraqi civilians. They might approach the perimeter at any time seeking medical help or food. Or they might be carrying a bomb.

The soldiers also play an elaborate game of laser tag. When a soldier is "hit," a buzzer sounds on his helmet. He places a small envelope given to him earlier on his helmet. A paper inside specifies his "wounds."

After the simulated car bomb attack last week, other Guard members transported the wounded and dead soldiers to either a make-believe hospital or morgue.

"It makes you think about how you would do something differently the next time, about how you can be more careful and thorough of your searching of the vehicle," said Switzer, the platoon leader.

On this particular day, Capt. Jeremiah Aeschleman, 31, of Herrin, Ill., who is the Charlie Battery's commander, is slated to die - again. It's the third time this month. His soldiers must learn how to carry on without him. Back at Tiger Camp's command tent, Sgt. 1st Class Will Miner, 41, of Oquawka, monitors the day's missions on a laptop. He and others distribute orders from headquarters and keep track of each soldier and weapon. When injuries or fatalities are reported, Miner's grim job is to notify the families and order replacements.

All of this is new to Miner, a gun chief in the Illinois National Guard. He's a carpenter in real life, so sitting behind a desk is unfamiliar.

"The radio, sometimes we have six radios going," he said. "We have to monitor the radios for all the squads that are out on missions and mark it on a map."

Mental and emotional conditioning is part of the training for this group of central and southern Illinois men and women ranging in age from 18 to 46.

"For a lot of my guys, this is the first time they've been away from home. Some of them are still going through that adjustment..." Aeschleman said. "As soon as we get on the plane and we go overseas, that's when it's going to really set in for a lot of these kids. We get off the plane and all they see is desert and pretty much everybody they see who is not wearing a uniform is speaking Arabic... that's going to take a little while to get used to."

The soldiers have had about 50 minutes of Arabic language training, enough to say "Stop or I'll shoot." But they spent a day learning about cultural differences, such as hand gestures that are acceptable in the United States but offensive in the Middle East.

"The Arabic language can sound harsh, even saying 'Hello. Good morning.' It looks kind of hostile sometimes," Aeschleman said. The Arabic-speaking actors help get the soldiers used to hearing Arabic and trying to interpret a civilian's intent from his gestures and facial expressions.

They also get accustomed to wearing about 50 pounds of equipment during their missions including a 30-pound Kevlar vest. In Iraq, the most serious threats will be improvised explosive devices, or IEDs in military parlance, and small arms fire. There, vests will be lifesavers.

One factor that the Army hasn't been able to simulate is the weather. A 15-inch snowfall in late January caused some tents to collapse and the soldiers were moved back to the regular barracks for a few days.

There have been 40 cases of bronchitis and one case of pneumonia among the 150 soldiers under Aeschleman's command. But even with a doctor's permission, his soldiers have been reluctant to skip training because they would have to make it up, prolonging their stay here, he said.

Sgt. Josh Chambers, 25, formerly of Monmouth, said he woke up one morning when it was 9 degrees in his tent. Chambers, who managed a retail store in Missouri before he was activated, said the extreme weather and the extreme workouts have helped prepare him for what's ahead.

"I think I've matured physically," Chambers said.

Still, some of the older, more experienced Guard members, many of whom have been deployed before, believe the soldiers under them could use more training.

"I'm eager to move on, but I'm not eager to move on over there yet because I don't feel we have had enough time," said Staff Sgt. Russell Bruns, 45, of Mt. Vernon. Bruns, a hospital maintenance technician who was deployed for the past two years with the Air Force in Springfield, Ill., volunteered to join Charlie Battery.

"...if we had more time, we'd be able to become more adept instead of getting over there and making a mistake where it costs someone their life," Bruns said.

The hardest part for Spc. Dogood Efenogo, 38, of Galesburg has been "keeping up the pace."

Efenogo, a native of Nigeria, gained his U.S. citizenship last year. His wife and three children, ages 10, nine and one, should be arriving in Galesburg from Nigeria soon. The last time he saw them was in July.

He left behind a job at Marigold Healthcare Center in Galesburg and dropped out of a college class he was taking after being ordered to Fort Dix.

They all made sacrifices. Pfc. Justin Dahm, 20, left his wife and newborn son at home in New Windsor. Spc. Michael Rettig, 21, of East Moline suspended his classes at Southern Illinois University. Spc. Jamey Crowl, 23, left his five-year-old son, Dylan, in Monmouth.

When they leave Fort Dix, the Guard members will spend a couple of weeks in Kuwait for additional training before they arrive in Baghdad. They've been told to expect an 18-month deployment, with one year in Iraq.

Many are eager to get to Baghdad, if only because it means they'll get home faster.

"I'm ready to get the time started, get done and get home," Burgdorf said.