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Jan. 19, 2008



Camp MacGregor, near El Paso, Texas, 12:30 p.m.

This training camp is associated with Fort Bliss, but not part of it. It is the barest of places, windswept, dusty and cold. Humvees patrol the perimeter, guards are posted in front of a mock Iraqi palace made of spray-painted fabric mounted on wooden frames. The soldiers say that until a week or so ago, they were staging mock alerts with recordings of incoming mortar rounds blaring out of the loudspeakers. Those loudspeakers, however, do broadcast the Muslim call to prayer several times a day. They also play a bugle reveille at 6 a.m.

But I was up anyway. I had trouble sleeping. This is my third time to deploy with the 45th Infantry Brigade, the Thunderbirds, Oklahoma's National Guard. In 2004, the unit deployed to Afghanistan, the first time the unit as a whole saw combat since Korea. I spent almost six months with them, flying in with the 279th out of Tulsa. It was a heady experience. They saw combat, trained several corps of the Afghan National Army " a job usually reserved for special forces, who were otherwise occupied fighting either Al Qaeda and Taliban or over in Iraq. They finished that tour in August 2004, returning home with no lives lost on the whole deployment.

Iraq, however is different. A soldier bunking near my hooch told me that the whole unit has remained under virtual lock and key as they've trained here at MacGregor. Soldiers can visit El Paso but little else. Instead, it's been train, train, and train. He said the first night here they were called out to stand inspection then run through an obstacle course at 3 a.m. Nobody griped, because Gen. Myles Deering did it with them. It's been concentrated effort the whole time here. Hence, the call to prayer broadcast on loudspeakers. It's immersion learning, to get their head in the game.

The 45th's mission lies ahead. After being processed through Kuwait, they will assume their role in providing security in the I-Z, called the international zone " the politically renamed "Green Zone."

Gotta go for lunch " Meals Ready to Eat. Yum.

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