South Florida Guard trains for return to Iraq in 2010… much for change

Early next year, the 1st Battalion will take their Camp Blanding training back to the Middle Eastern desert

(SUN SENTINEL)   As the patrol moved quietly down a dusty road, the soldiers from South Florida neared what looked like a small Iraqi village. Then gunfire erupted.

After seeing heavy action in Ramadi and Baghdad in 2003 and 2004, the Florida National Guards 1st Battalion (pictured here during a training exercise) will return to Iraq early next year. (Mike Stocker, Sun Sentinel / November 11, 2009)

After seeing heavy action in Ramadi and Baghdad in 2003 and 2004, the Florida National Guard's 1st Battalion (pictured here during a training exercise) will return to Iraq early next year. (Mike Stocker, Sun Sentinel / November 11, 2009)

“Three-sixty,” yelled Staff Sgt. Daniel Nunez as his squad dropped to the ground and took cover while setting up a 360-degree perimeter. In the next few seconds, men and women wearing robelike garments and headscarves began shouting wildly in Arabic, a bomb exploded and white smoke spread through the trees like creeping fog.

Wide-eyed, Florida Army National Guard Spc. Alicia Mitchell, 23, aFlorida Atlantic University sophomore from Deerfield Beach, peered out from a clump of bushes and sighted down the scope of her M-4 rifle, alert for enemy fire.

“I experiment a lot with my life,” Mitchell had remarked a few hours earlier from the canvas-covered “hooch” where she had grabbed some sleep during a cold, dark night. “I knew this would be difficult. But I’m up for the challenge.”

This encounter between the soldiers of Hollywood-based Alpha Company, 1st Battalion of the Guard’s 124th Infantry Regiment, and hired actors playing Iraqi villagers celebrating a wedding was an exercise. The shots fired were blanks, the smoke bomb was meant to cause confusion and the soldiers were practicing making an instant decision: “friendlies” or enemy combatants?

After the drill, Nunez, a 47-year-old combat veteran who works as a painter for the city of Miami Beach, led a review of his squad’s performance. “It’s going to be hard,” said Nunez. “But we’ve got a mission to do.”

Early next year, the piney woods of North Florida will give way to the sands of Iraq, the ammunition will be live and the threats real. After seeing heavy action in Ramadi and Baghdad in 2003 and 2004 — and being awarded more than 50 Purple Hearts — the 1st Battalion has been ordered back to Iraq.

More than 600 members of the battalion will be mobilized Jan. 2, ship out to Fort Hood, Texas, for more training and arrive in the war zone by March, assigned to provide convoy security. They will be gone for a year.

In a month of intensive training at the Guard’s Camp Blanding, the soldiers “are getting used to loud noises, heavy loads, and hours and hours of work,” said Alpha Company executive officer Lt. Leo Poveda, 33, who spent a year in Afghanistan in 2005.

Along with foot patrols, the soldiers drill repeatedly in Humvees, snaking through the forest in convoys while learning to spot improvised explosive devices, one of the biggest killers of Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan.

On one exercise, trainers hiding in palmetto scrub along the roadside triggered a blast that showered a cloud of white powder over a Humvee. When the vehicle’s machine gunner was declared to have suffered an arm injury that required amputation, fellow soldiers turned to help their “wounded” buddy and ignored the now-unmanned machine gun.

In his review, company commander Capt. Carlos Aviles was critical. “I know it’s hard,” he said, “but you have to jump on that weapons system.”

As realistic as the drills are, however, they cannot reproduce what Poveda called “that fear factor” that comes with combat.

“With the bullets whistling through your ears, the bombs blowing up — there is no comparison,” said Poveda, who recently resigned from his job as a manager with rental car company Enterprise. “Bottom line, you’re in Florida, with other guys who speak English, and after the training you’re going home. Over there, you never know.”

Battalion commander Lt. Col. George Rosser knows that practice creates muscle memory. “We train to make our responses instinctual,” he said.

That means getting up at 5 a.m. to begin long days practicing searches of people and vehicles, how to react to a sniper attack and mortar fire, and how to quickly get in and out of a “bivy sack,” a triple-layered sleeping bag that can provide warmth on a chilly night in the woods or the Middle Eastern desert.

The Florida Guard is made up of citizen-soldiers, men and women who volunteered to leave their families and their jobs.

Aviles, 38, was a Collier County sheriff’s deputy before going full time with the Guard. Lt. David Shanks, 30, is aMiami-Dade County police officer. Sgt. Smith Amisial, 24, of West Palm Beach, is a physical trainer.

Sgt. David Burge, 26, of Hollywood, drives a limousine. Spc. Allan Caballero, 39, is studying slot machine repair.

The battalion’s top enlisted man, Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Naugle, has worked 20 years at the Palm Beach County Property Appraiser’s Office. Like about 40 percent of the battalion, he already has been to war at least once. He knows as well as anyone that the National Guard is no longer called up only in the aftermath of Florida hurricanes.

“My kids are surprised I’m going back,” said Naugle, 49, who will miss his middle child’s high school graduation next year. “But they realize that if you’re in the Guard, you’re going.”

Nunez, who has served tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan, said he worries that changes in the rules of engagement for U.S. troops could increase the danger during the upcoming mission.

“We owned the road back then,” he said. “Now, we don’t. All Iraqis are considered friendly, and they could be suicide bombers. So it is more dangerous.”

But company 1st Sgt. Arnoldo Arana, 48, a Davie resident who works at Port Everglades for the Department of Homeland Security, said he will return to Iraq with confidence.

“We have better equipment, more body armor, and in my 23 years [in the Guard] this is the best training I’ve seen,” he said.

That is reassuring to Pfc. Andres Merchan, 25, a musician who brought his guitar to camp. A native of Maracay, Venezuela — Arana’s hometown — Merchan enlisted in October 2008 because “I wanted to help out after hurricanes, and to defend this country, which has given me so much.”

Merchan admits that he — and his wife of two months, Gennary Diaz — are “a little bit anxious about it.”

“In Iraq there are going to be IEDs, we’re going on convoys, so it might be a little bit dangerous.

“But my family is really proud of me,” he said.

Also proud are Mitchell’s father, Broward Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Anthony Thompson, and mother, Frances Cunningham, a mail carrier. Thompson is a chief warrant officer in the Guard, who did a year in Iraq in 2003 and 2004 with the Fort Lauderdale-based 743rd Maintenance Company.

“I feel comfortable with the timing,” said Thompson. “We been there over six years now, and things have gotten better. But on any mission, anything can happen. You react the way you are trained.”

Cunningham, who lives in Port St. Lucie, said she prefers not to think about what is going on in Iraq.

“I thought she’d be a teacher. I just never thought about my daughter going away to fight in the military,” said Cunningham. “But she is following in her dad’s footsteps.

“Now I just want her to focus on the job and come home safely.”,0,3518401,full.story

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