Colorado post fills as part of the biggest deployment since World War II
FORT CARSON, Colo. Ñ There are no live hand grenades for training at Fort Carson, Colo., which is just another sign that the United States soon may be going to war in Iraq.
All the hot ones have been sent overseas, leaving only reusable practice grenades for the hundreds of Oregon National Guard infantrymen to heave during their current foot-soldier refresher course.
Most of the Oregon National Guard troops arrived Feb. 15. They don't know when they'll be shipped out, nor where they will be stationed. But everyone on the sprawling post Ñ just south of Colorado Springs Ñ says it's just a matter of time before the fighting starts.
'It's a job that's long overdue,' 1st. Sgt. Fred Waters said Tuesday after qualifying at the rifle range with a perfect score Ñ hitting 40 targets without a miss.
Waters, a Monmouth cement truck driver, is one of hundreds of Oregon Guard troops who have given up the comforts of home for the hard life of combat soldiers, such as:
• Capt. John Robinson, who is on leave from his job in Nike's global apparel department;
• Staff Sgt. Joe Wapner, who is no longer a stay-at-home dad for his three children;
• Pvt. Jeremy Anderson, who has suspended his computer technology education.
More than 400 soldiers from Oregon's 1st Battalion, 162nd Infantry, have moved into an abandoned World War II-era hospital on the southern edge of the post. They sleep on cots jammed together in former patient and examination rooms, the smell of perspiration mingling with the musty odor of the aging medical facility.
But despite the cramped quarters and the near-zero temperatures that hit the area earlier this week, nobody's complaining Ñ at least not to the media.
'It takes a lot of adjusting, and there have been some ups and downs, but the men are holding up well,' said Robinson, who commands Charlie Company, one of the three companies that make up the Oregon battalion.
The men understand that the training could save their lives, including the hours spent learning how to deal with poison gases and biological nerve agents.
One drill they practice in the barracks has the soldiers whipping complex gas masks out of hip-mounted pouches and strapping them to their faces in under 10 seconds. If the procedure takes longer, it's 50 push-ups and repeat until the mask is strapped on in time.
'Nerve gas will give your body the worst charley horse you've ever had, and then you die,' one instructor warned before the drill.
The drill, of course, was a dry run without the real thing.
Other exercises involved throwing dummy hand grenades, disarming mines and firing tracer rounds in dramatic night fire sessions.
Through it all, the Oregon troops are approaching their training with cool professionalism.
'It's my job. It's what I get paid to do,' said Pfc. Nikolai Lukenovich, a private security guard back home in Portland.
Weather is challenge and boon
In the two weeks the Oregon guardsmen have been stationed at Fort Carson, the only break in the training routine has come courtesy of an unexpected Ñ and ironic Ñ source: extreme cold weather.
After weeks of balmy, springlike weather, an arctic cold front sent temperatures plunging below zero late this month and forced commanders to temporarily cancel predawn calisthenics and rifle practice on remote ranges where the wind chill reached 15 degrees below zero.
Schedules were quickly rearranged to continue the training program however possible. After breakfast Tuesday morning, Sgt. Maj. Jerry Schleining had a dozen Oregon guardsmen crawling through the snow just outside the hospital.
'The training's the same, whether there's snow or sand, trees or no trees,' Schleining explained.
The weather doesn't matter, said 2nd Brigade, 91st Division Public Affairs Officer Master Sgt. Pat Valdez. According to Valdez, the troops have been sent to Fort Carson because it is one of a handful of military bases in the country large enough to handle the massive military deployment that is currently under way.
'We're moving a very large organization through here,' Valdez said.
According to Valdez, more troops are scheduled to be deployed from Fort Carson in the next few weeks than anytime since World War II.
The post was established in 1942 following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. It covers 375,523 acres of open prairie, heavily forested areas, mountains and wetlands. Soldiers can train with weapons ranging from pistols to rocket launchers, including artillery and tanks. At the Pinon Canyon maneuver site, located about 100 miles southeast of the base's headquarters, large-scale troop movement training is held.
Fort Carson is a self-contained city with its own schools, police force and public works department. More than 15,000 full-time soldiers and 3,100 civilians are normally assigned there. Because of the current mobilization, an additional 2,500 full- and part-time soldiers have moved onto the post, filling every available building and even a few tents pitched near the practice ranges.
Destination, departure unknown
Valdez predicted that most of the soldiers on the base will be sent overseas in the coming weeks, leaving behind only a basic support crew. He said hundreds of troops already are shipping out daily, replaced every day by soldiers such as the Oregon guardsmen.
Rumors are rife about when and where the Oregon troops will go. Some think they might leave in a week for Turkey, while others have heard they'll leave in two weeks for Kuwait.
'We've been issued insulated boots and mosquito nets. What should I make of that?' joked Spc. Jonathan Guzman.
The troops originally thought they'd ship out within two weeks of arriving at the post. But Lt. Col. Phil Swinford, a member of the unit's certification team, said the training could continue until the end of March.
Speaking at the grenade training course Tuesday moring, Swinford said the troops were 'doing well' but would not be sent overseas until they meet the military's tough standards for combat readiness. Among other things, that means training with the live grenades that are not currently available.
'They've all been sent overseas. We're trying to round up some more right now,' he said.
The additional weeks could be the most emotionally trying time for the troops. Everyone in the guard leaves home for two weeks of training every year. They frequently travel to large bases, including Fort Lewis in Washington, for the kind of intense sessions they are receiving at Fort Carson.
But the two-week mark will pass soon, meaning that they're beginning to realize they won't be going home anytime soon.
'There are ups and downs, of course. Everyone misses their families. But they're handling it well,' Robinson said.
Technology is helping the soldiers deal with homesickness. Most of the troops carry cell phones and talk with loved ones daily. The military also has required all of them to open e-mail accounts that can be accessed at any computer in the world as part of a program called Army Knowledge Online.
'It's made a tremendous difference,' Robinson said.
Still, the soliders note, their families also are having to adjust to the deployment.
For example, Wapner's father is moving to Portland from Indiana to baby-sit the family's three children so his wife can keep her job as a TriMet driver.
And Robinson, who is single, has rented his St. Johns home to a friend who will care for his dog and cat until he has seen his men through the coming conflict.