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Turning out the lights

"Turning out the lights" Continued...

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

One of the Iraq War's legacies, to Holmes, is that the National Guard, thanks to repeated deployments, is no longer the Army's junior varsity. "Our goal is to carry this thing to the end," Holmes told me. "It's not going to go backwards under our watch."

The 278th is a proud unit-with its various incarnations having fought in the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, and Korea. Four of its soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor. That lineage may be why some current 278th troops suffer from Afghanistan-envy:

"That's more the glamor job right now," says Sgt. 1st Class Jones about Afghanistan. "We kind of want to be where the action is, but we will take our mission."

What Holmes and other 278th top commanders are trying to do is remind the regiment that Iraq is still a dangerous place. December may have been the first month that the U.S. military reported no combat fatalities in Iraq, but January saw a rash of bombings around Baghdad-including two at the end of the month that killed more than 60. Such ongoing carnage serves as a bitter reminder that the Iraqi security forces are still a work in progress.

"There still will be people out there trying to kill us," said Lt. Ken McDevitt, 34, of Christiana, Tenn., an officer now after serving as an enlisted soldier during the last deployment.

That is why during one recent January afternoon at Camp Shelby some 278th troops dressed in the robes, or "man dresses," of Iraqi locals to attack other 278th soldiers in mock ambushes. Guns popped with blanks, purple smoke bombs doubled as grenades, and a Black Hawk helicopter made regular landings so troops could practice something they hope never to do for real: medical evacuations. It was organized chaos, playing guns in the woods.

Elsewhere throughout the Mississippi base Army evaluators try to recreate the worst day possible in Iraq: Everything from the shrill shriek of a mortar round shattering the boredom of gate guard duty; a captain offering a free steak dinner for the gunner who can hit the most pop-up targets in a live fire obstacle course; and soldiers taking turns practicing how to exit a vehicle that has been flipped over by a roadside bomb.

These soldiers piled into the military's Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, or MRAP. They oohed, aahed, and laughed as if on a carnival ride while the hydraulic controlled MRAP made a slow 180-degree flip and stopped, forcing the passengers to safely find their way out while hanging upside down.

The MRAP, with a V-shaped hull designed to deflect blasts, is the military's best chess piece in the ongoing contest with insurgents over roadside bombs-the war's top killer.

Standing like an elephant with wheels, the 38,000-pound, 13-foot-tall MRAP is something the 278th wished it had the last time it went to Iraq. Soldiers training in Mississippi still recall having to convoy from Kuwait to Iraq in late 2004 with canvas-sided Humvees that contained rusted scrap metal welded to the doors.

But this year the 278th will be making convoys with the MRAP. It's not the only technological advance the regiment will enjoy: Soldiers will wear improved body armor with extra plating, and most bases now boast high-tech $655,000 surveillance cameras mounted on 100-foot guard towers that can see images up to 15 miles away.

Another day in the regiment's 60-day Camp Shelby assignment to regain its battle rhythm has passed. Outside one of the barracks, a newly promoted sergeant smokes a celebratory cigar while inside an older soldier blasts songs from Journey's Greatest Hits album (despite protests from his younger bunkmates).

Nearby Pfc. Michael Caudill of Knoxville, Tenn., silently lies on his bunk, his camcorder perched on his chest. He remains fixated on a loop of home movies: scenes with his wife and children playing in a park's water fountain or belting "Happy Birthday." The tiny screen of his camcorder now is his only window to home.

"I have the best job in the world," he later boasts to me. "I'm a stay-at-home dad." But not for the next 12 months.

Even though Caudill feels alone, the 278th, in a nod to its National Guard roots, still is somewhat of a family affair. Staff Sgt. Joseph Ciccarelli and Sgt. 1st Class Addie Ciccarelli are husband and wife. Going to Iraq will be a family reunion for them: They hope to see their oldest daughter, Meagan, 20, who is stationed in Baghdad with the Army. Currently required to live in separate barracks, the Ciccarellis are lucky to see each other an hour a day, usually stealing a meal together at a hamburger joint on base.

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