FORT McCLELLAN, Ala. -- As the hostile force advanced on their position, members of Charlie Troop of the 108th Cavalry Squadron did what they could to prepare.
Small fire teams of two or three soldiers covered the perimeter -- 12 o'clock, 3 o'clock, 6 o'clock, 9 o'clock -- and peered through the dense brush.
When an approaching sniper was spotted, one of the teams began firing. Later, more of the soldiers began shooting as the hostiles advanced. Artillery simulators began going off 30 yards down the hill, and each succeeding explosion was closer to the platoon's position.
That was just a probe," said Capt. Danny Thibault. "Wait until the main assault begins."
Once that assault is completed, the Georgia National Guardsmen will be evaluated on their performance and then they will switch roles. The aggressors will become the defenders and the defense will go begin their own assault.
Off to the south, in another area of the same training ground, the sound of rapid-fire automatic weapons and an intense simulated artillery barrage marked the spot where soldiers of Rome-based Alpha Troop were going through the same exercise.
The 108th Cavalry Squadron -- the Calhoun-based National Guard unit made the transition from an armor battalion to a cavalry squadron after its 2005-2006 deployment to Iraq -- is in a far better state of readiness than it was at this point prior to leaving for Iraq, Thibault said.
"We've been preparing for this deployment for two years," he said. "We will be more than certified when we leave."
Units from across Northwest Georgia
The 108th Cavalry, made up of five smaller units based across Northwest Georgia: Headquarters Troop in Calhoun, Alpha Troop in Rome, Bravo Troop in Canton, Charlie Troop in Dalton and Delta Company in Cedartown, has been at the Army's training facility at Fort McClellan for most of January.
This weekend, most of the soldiers went home on leave before starting another month of training at the Army's Joint Readiness Training Center at Fork Polk, La.
Soldiers in the unit say the month they have spent training in Alabama is just a prelude to more intense exercises they will participate in at the JRTC.
"The move to the JRTC site will allow us to train for the tasks we will have in Afghanistan," said Sgt. Jeremy Brake, of Calhoun, a member of Headquarters Troop.
Brake and other members of the Calhoun-based troop were in their barracks, doing last minute weapons cleaning, packing up and preparing for the move to Fort Polk.
"Everybody has to know their job," Brake said. "While we have been here in Alabama, we have learned a lot about how the unit operates."
Sgt Justin Brooks of CalÂhoun, an operations sergeant with Headquarters Troop, said the month-long training in Alabama was the first step in preparing for the 108th Cavalry's mission in Afghanistan as Embedded Trainers working with the Afghan army and police.
"We are trying to teach (the soldiers) the standards, because if they don't know them, they can't teach them to the Afghan security forces when we get in-country," Brooks said.
Pfc. Bryan Bledsoe of AdairsÂville, an Alpha Troop cavalry scout, said the training at Fort McClellan has been of a more one-to-one nature. "We've been learning how to communicate with each other, how everyone thinks, how your buddy thinks," Bledsoe said.
"The 108th is now a scout unit, and we are learning the different troop and vehicle movements that go into that," said Sgt. Chris Harrell of Rome, who is assigned to Headquarters Troop.
"I don't know what to expect when we reach Afghanistan. It will be different -- it's scary -- this is my first deployment, and I really don't know what to expect," Harrell said.
Getting ready for Afghanistan
Preparing the soldiers for setting foot in Afghanistan is what the current round of pre-deployment training has been focused on, Thibault said.
Thibault said the Guardsmen have been working on small-unit tactics at the squad and platoon level. The next round, at the JRTC and later at Camp Shelby, Miss., will see them working at the troop and squadron levels, he said.
Spc. Patrick Crabtree of Rome, an Alpha Troop scout, said the unit has been "walking through the basics" of patrolling and setting and responding to ambushes.
"At the next level, the pace of training will be lot faster," Crabtree said. "We are perfecting our craft before we get to Afghanistan, where I expect we will be doing a lot of combat patrols and counter-insurgency."
While many of the 108th's soldiers are new to the unit -- Thibault said only three of the members of his platoon from Iraq are still in the Guard -- there is a strong cadre of older soldiers who give guidance to the young ones.
"We try to share our knowledge of the Iraq deployment," said Sgt. Brian Mullinax of Rome, Alpha Troop's communications NCO.
Mullinax began working full time for the Guard last year after the 108th was called up.
"There is a lot of administrative work to get ready for a smooth transition," he said.
Mullinax and Sgt. Kenneth Brooks of Calhoun, who leads Alpha Troop's mortar section, said that while Afghanistan is a combat zone, the 108th's mission will be primarily a training mission.
"We have been preparing mentally as well as physically for going the Afghanistan," Brooks said. "Except for the higher elevations, we understand the climate is a lot like Georgia."
But not all of Afghanistan will be like Georgia, he said. With elevations as high as 16,000 feet, the temperature can vary as much as 40 degrees, depending on the altitude.
Veterans are playing key role
Brooks and Mullinax and other veterans of the 108th's Iraq deployment play a key role in preparing the younger soldiers for the new mission.
"In general the younger soldiers look to the combat veterans to learn what to do," said Sgt Joe Dyer, an Alpha Troop platoon sergeant who is a Polk County police officer in civilian life.
"We constantly have new soldiers coming into the Army and the Guard, and we have to hone their skills to get them ready," Dyer said. "Afghanistan is a completely different theater of operations than Iraq. What I know about Afghanistan comes from field manuals, and until I put my feet on the ground, I can't say what I expect."
Not all of the 108th's newer soldiers are new to the military, however.
Spc. Gary Coffia, 53, of Lindale, and a veteran of the Navy and the Army in the 1970s and 1980s, joined Headquarters Troop last year.
"Some of us old geezers still have some life in us. I decided to come back onto the playing field," said Coffia, who was nursing an ankle fracture received in a training exercise. "These kids inspire me to do the job they do, but it works both ways. Sometime I motivate them."
The different units in the squadron normally drill at their respective armories, but Coffia said he can "see them meshing together to do what we need to do."
Soldiers have to eat, too
Putting troops on the ground involves many support roles.
"I'm a mess sergeant," said Delta Company's Sgt. Tim Turek of Calhoun. "And a dang good one," interjected someone from the sidelines.
Turek hasn't been doing much cooking at Fort McClellan and doesn't expect to start cooking until he reaches Afghanistan.
"Right now, I'm doing the same weapons training as the other troops," said Turek, who runs a catering business in Calhoun with his wife.
"The biggest difference I'll see is that I'll be preparing more meals than I usually do, but I'll have a bigger staff, too." He said he could be cooking for a smaller unit at a forward operating base or for all of the unit's 600 soldiers at a main base.
Alpha Troop's commander Capt. Nathan Stone said he has been pleased with the unit's performance during its first phase of training.
"They have done well," said Stone, who has been in the Guard for 11 years and with the 108th since July 2008. "Repetition is key, and we have had a lot of pro-active training. When we go on a training exercise, I give them a scenario, and once I see how we perform, I give set a new scenario.
"The JRTC will help us get our ducks in a row before we get over there and play for real."
Stone went through Embedded Trainer training at Fort Riley, Kan., in preparation for the Afghanistan assignment.
"When we work with Afghan troops we will have translators, but we will also go through a 40-hour language course while we are in Mississippi. We will have cultural training, as well," he said.
After spending February at the JRTC, the unit will go to Camp Shelby, Miss.
Stone said the Rome unit will get a sendoff from the Rome armory March 2 and will be escorted out of town by local police and the Patriot Guard motorcycle organization.