FORT BLISS, Texas - Among the mesquite brush and cacti on this expansive desert base straddling the Texas-New Mexico border, 650 Oregon Army National Guard soldiers have spent the past three months training to keep themselves alive during an upcoming year-long mission to stabilize Iraq.
The so-called "weekend warriors" have left wives, children and jobs behind to train full time for Operation Iraqi Freedom as U.S. and allied troops attempt to stabilize Iraq for elections in January. No brigade has yet returned from Iraq with all of its soldiers alive, Col. Barry Nightingale said.
"This is a no-kidding, every-single-day fighting war," he said.
The soldiers of the 3rd Battalion, 116th Cavalry, based in La Grande, have had to learn a new style of warfare. The battalion, which emphasized tank warfare for years, will leave behind most of its tanks and howitzer artillery as it transforms itself into the sort of light, quick and efficient military force demanded by the urban combat environment in Iraq.
To prepare for their mission, the soldiers have intensely trained at this hot desert base near El Paso, Texas. Medics have trained to save wounded soldiers in realistic environments, while other troops have tried to learn how to counter the ambushes and roadside bombs that have been responsible for many of the more than 1,000 U.S. deaths in Iraq.
"They make their mistakes here," said Staff Sgt. Leo Gilberide of Caldwell, Idaho. "They learn here. That saves our soldiers overseas."
Together with the Fort Bliss-controlled White Sands Missile Range - "the biggest piece of dirt you've ever seen," as Nightingale said - the base is the largest in the continental United States. It includes mock Iraqi villages and enough space to shoot any conventional weapon in the Army's inventory, Nightingale said.
According to one recent report in the Courd'Alene, Texas Press, the living conditions at Fort Bliss will get the soldiers accustomed to what to expect in Iraq.
"The living conditions are better over there than they are here," Col. Steven Knutzen said. "You have three hot meals a day over there, here you only get two."
Knutzen, the head of the 116th Engineer Battalion, recently returned from Iraq. He said the soldiers will be serving in the Kirkuk area , north of Baghdad. They will be relieving the Army's Hawaii-based 25th Infantry Division.
The training at Fort Bliss, more than 1,400 miles from Pendleton, has left some of the local soldiers missing home.
"This part of Texas makes me appreciate Oregon more," said Spc. Mitchell Mathews, a Heppner native in G Troop, 82nd Cavalry, based in Redmond.
Spc. Stephen Jensen, 23, from Pendleton, said he was sorry to miss a Round-Up for the first time.
The troops are nearing the end of their time at Fort Bliss, which will be followed by a three-week mission readiness exercise at Fort Polk, La. Afterward, the troops will enjoy a staggered two-week leave in early November, for which many of the local troops said they intend to return home. The soldiers will then travel in early December to Kuwait, where the Army will outfit them with "up-armored" Humvees featuring Kevlar flooring, armored doors and windows, and other equipment. The Army has frantically worked to build the up-armored Humvees after early experience in Iraq indicated standard Humvees couldn't adequately protect soldiers from shrapnel. After a 31/2 day drive from Kuwait, the troops will arrive at their theater of operations north of Baghdad.
"I'm just excited to get overseas," said Spc. Jackson Ball, a 23-year-old Guardsman from La Grande. "I just want to get the training done and get in-country."
Soldiers from the 116th will spend two months with the unit they're relieving, making sure they're up to speed. The 116th will join a number of fellow Oregonians in Iraq. The Oregon Army National Guard's 2nd Battalion, 162nd Infantry, based in Baghdad, includes 700 soldiers. Another 15 came with Detachment 2, L Company of the 151st Aviation Maintenance Regiment, serving in Balad, a city north of Baghdad.
"Oregon is one of the states that is most heavily tasked," said Capt. Mike Braibish, an Oregon Army National Guard spokesman. He attributed the heavy presence of Oregonians in Iraq to the "ebb and flow" of troops in and out of the country.
Forty percent of the troops in Iraq are reserve or National Guard soldiers, said Lt. Col. Tim Marsano of the Idaho Army National Guard.
Nightingale said the soldiers should have access to telephones, e-mail and standard mail while they are in Iraq.