Features
Photos by U.S. Army SSG. Russell Lee Klika

Turning out the lights

Iraq | The soldiers of the 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment prepare for their second, but likely the U.S. military's last, deployment to Iraq

Issue: "Ghost streets," Feb. 27, 2010

CAMP SHELBY, Miss.-The 16 dust-colored Humvees rolled out of base camp spaced 110 yards apart so any bombs buried in the roads ahead would visit destruction on just one unlucky vehicle. Gunners manning the .50-­caliber machine guns mounted to each roof swiveled their sights from one horizon to the next.

"Keep your eyes open, guys," Sgt. Timothy Terry of Dawson Springs, Ky., says, stating the obvious to the rest of his crew. The soldiers had gotten intelligence that the area is a hotbed for car bombs, or VBIEDs (Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices) in the acronym-loving world of military speak. The occupants of Sgt. Terry's Humvee next began one of the most common rituals of any solider throughout combat history: watching and waiting. In the grime-covered corner of the Humvee's front windshield someone had scrawled "I love Camp Shelby" in the dirt.

Soon Sgt. Terry spotted a car with its hood popped open on the roadside up ahead: a situation any soldier worth his night-vision goggles (or NVGs) would recognize as "Redcon status" danger.

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As the rest of the soldiers edged up on their seats and flexed their trigger fingers, the driver accelerated past the potential kill zone, just ahead of a loud boom that rattled the vehicle and sent empty shell casings sprinkling down from the roof gunner's open-air perch.

Happily for those in the convoy, Camp Shelby is not located in the desert of Iraq or the mountains of Afghanistan. Rather it's in the woods of Mississippi, and Terry's convoy is merely on a simulated training mission complete with special effects straight out of a low-budget action flick.

But that is about to change this month as the roughly 3,000 members of the 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment head to Iraq: likely the last combat unit to be deployed there.

After seven years and more than 4,370 American troops killed, the war's final chapters are being assigned to this Tennessee-based National Guard unit making its second visit to civilization's cradle.

"We are turning the lights off in Iraq," boasts Sgt. 1st Class James Jones, 38, of Mount Juliet, Tenn. When the regiment first went off to Iraq five years ago, Jones led a squad of nine guys. This time around promotions bring "a little more pay and a ton more responsibility," putting him in charge of 40 troops.

Indeed, the 278th is battle-tested, according to its commander Col. Jeff Holmes. About half of the troops went with the regiment on its last trip to Iraq, including then-Lt. Col. Holmes, whose responsibility has jumped from one squadron of around 1,000 soldiers to the entire regiment. When the unit first deployed in late 2004, just 5 percent of the troops had combat experience.

It may not be this cavalry's first rodeo, but they face tighter restrictions this time around. Five years ago U.S. military convoys took the center of Iraq's roads and dared locals to get in their way. Today the 278th will have to share the roads. Using the military's prevailing COIN, or counterinsurgency strategy, this combat brigade is now ordered to balance vigilance with compassion.

The regiment's main tasks this year will be base defense and security on supply convoys throughout Iraq that mostly will be driven at night. The first go around, when Iraq teetered on the brink of failure, the 278th actively engaged the Iraqi people in nation-building exercises, helped oversee the nation's first elections after the fall of Saddam Hussein, and trained then-­fledgling Iraqi police forces. Now they hope to spend 2010 mostly in the shadows.

"We don't have to be cowboys this time," says 1st Lt. Thomas Grayson of St. Louis. There is even talk that their deployment may be cut short with President Obama having announced that America's combat presence in Iraq will end this August.

Some combat veterans are rejoicing in the mission, seeing it as a sign that the 2007 troop surge worked and that the Iraqi people are finally taking on greater responsibility for their nation. Now the 278th has a front row seat to see if the Iraqis can keep it together.

Holmes remembers a 2005 Iraq that was still looking for its post-Saddam stride. He recalls how Iraqi security forces would take their U.S.-funded paychecks and disappear. Those who did stand and fight were forced to use wheeled office chairs tied to the back of a Toyota pickup truck as the gunner's seat.

"It takes time for a nation to build," Holmes concludes when he reminisces on a deployment that saw 14 of the 278th troops killed.

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