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.
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.
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.
"It is like we are dating again," says Addie, who outranks her husband. "Every night he goes back to his barracks, and I go back to mine."
The last time Holmes, the regiment's commander, went to Iraq, he missed the senior basketball season and the high-school graduation of his oldest son, Hulon.
But in the summer of 2008 Hulon stunned his father over a dinner at a Tennessee Cracker Barrel with the news that he too was joining the 278th.
"I didn't think it would be fair that he had to be the only one to go this time," explains Hulon. But while Jeff Holmes will be in charge of 3,000 troops, Hulon Holmes, as a specialist, will be one of the regiment's lowest-ranked soldiers and in one of its most dangerous jobs: vehicle gunner.
"You can't lock the ones you love in a vault. I try not to dwell on the fact that one of those gunners is my son," Holmes told me, adding that he watches his son from a distance and will not interfere with his unit. "I look at all my soldiers as my sons and brothers. They are all family."
There are even some sisters in the 278th family: Spec. Mary Wolfe, 27, of Memphis, Tenn., is a rare find in the military-a female gunner. She says she is comfortable with weapons, having grown up deer hunting with her dad in Paris, Tenn. Still, despite her excitement about the job, she hasn't told her family that she will be manning a weapon on Iraq's roads.
"I'm keeping them on a need-to-know basis," she explains.
While half of the regiment already wears combat patches below the U.S. flag sewn on the sleeves of their uniforms, a youth movement that includes Hulon Holmes and Wolfe has filled out the rest of the 278th. Many of the lowest-ranked soldiers weren't even teenagers when terrorists attacked New York in 2001.
"I remember watching it on TV in middle school," recalls Pvt. Michael Grooms, 21, from Kentucky. "If I had a chance back then, I would have joined up. I just had to wait my turn."
But not all this youth is inexperienced: 26-year-old Spec. Justin Horn of Trenton, Tenn., joined the military in 2002. He is about to be deployed for the fourth time. Horn, whose first child is due in May, says he endured ambushes, mortar attacks, and roadside bombs during his three previous deployments-all to Afghanistan.
"I'm going to try to stay out of trouble," Horn said of his first trip to Iraq. "I'm hoping that I haven't run out of my lucky charm."
Nobody in the 278th has had a longer string of luck than Staff Sgt. Michael Maupin. One look at the long military resumé of the 58-year-old, 145-pound spitfire soldier shows that the regiment still has its share of grizzled veterans. Despite his age, he recently earned a perfect score on his physical training test: running two miles in 15 minutes, completing 100 pushups in two minutes, and 78 sit-ups in two minutes.
But that should come as no surprise because Maupin already owns a Silver Star for charging a hill and not falling back even after taking shrapnel wounds to his head. He also owns a Bronze Star with a V for valor even though he can't remember the details that led to that award. The war where Maupin earned these medals: Vietnam.
"I'm just an average guy going into his fourth combat zone," says Maupin, who joined the military as an 18-year-old back in 1969. He is now taking orders from officers who weren't even born then.
Bald-headed with a grey-dappled mustache, Maupin promises that this will be his last year in uniform.
"When I get back, I'll be 59," says the machine operator at a textile company. "So if this is my last hurrah, I'm going to try to make the best of it. It's almost like a race when you can see the finish line."
Reaching the finish line, that's what the entire Army, with the 278th turning out the lights, is hoping finally to do in Iraq.