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Reporter reflects on Memorial Day as he prepares to join Army units in training

Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of blogs that will appear regularly during the next few days. They all lead up to a Journal-World special project that will debut June 6.

These days, Memorial Day is best known for blowout sales and blockbuster movie releases. Of course, that's not the reason the holiday was created. Memorial Day was intended to honor America's war dead, and was first celebrated as Decoration Day in 1868, as the nation began to heal from the wounds of the Civil War.

I can think of no better time to immerse myself in the workings of today's military. As you read this, I am en route to Fort Irwin, Calif., where I will embed with units of the 1st Infantry Division, based at Fort Riley, as they undergo desert warfare training.

To be honest, I don't know what to expect. This will be rugged living, and no one would describe me as outdoorsy. I'm a city mouse, and I don't think last summer's river trip in southern Illinois exactly prepared me for life as an embedded reporter.

Here's what I do know: I'll be following troops from the Big Red One's 2nd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, and will find out more details during a briefing session upon my arrival at Fort Irwin. I do know that this unit includes tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles and a flock of helicopters. A full-service operation.

The exercises I'm observing take place at Fort Irwin's National Training Center (NTC). Soldiers must complete training at the NTC before they are declared eligible to be deployed. This unit is expecting orders to deploy later in the summer, though it is unclear exactly where it will be sent.

The NTC has been used by military branches for years. Its location in the middle of the California desert - two hours from Los Angeles and Las Vegas - made it an ideal place to train for battle. But since the United States became involved in its current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the NTC's location makes even more sense, because it prepares troops for the climates they'll likely face in the Middle East. Frankly, I'm not looking forward to the heat, but the forecast is calling for temperatures in the 70s and 80s.

Part of the training I am observing is live-fire exercises. That means real bullets, real mortars and real bombs dropped by Air Force planes, with which the Army is coordinating. The soldiers will practice assaults on villages, engage enemy troops (played by other Army personnel), detonate roadside bombs and even practice local government negotiation.

As for me, I'm looking forward to this experience.

I have my worries, though. How will my new el cheapo hiking shoes hold up? Will years of softening up in an office chair make this experience miserable? Are MREs as bad as I've heard? And will the troops make fun of my sparkling new wardrobe? I'm excited to test out my new camouflage pants, boonie cap and Army/Navy surplus goggles. But I'm quite certain I will look exactly like what I am: A guy who bought a bunch of stuff to try to impress the troops. I feel a little like Evelyn Waugh's bumbling war correspondent, William Boot.

The Army has been extremely helpful in coordinating this trip. Public affairs officials at Fort Riley and Fort Irwin have made everything come together smoothly. To them, I'm grateful.

I'll be blogging about my time in the desert as much as I can, through Wednesday. Check back here at for my latest updates, and the sights and sounds of the soldiers training for war.

And if there is anything that you want to know about what these soldiers are doing to prepare for combat, please drop me a line at [][3], and I'll do my best to address your questions in later blog posts.

[3]: Training Question

May 28, 2008

Notes from the desert


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