State's soldiers roll with challenges of Iraq

The Baltimore Sun

CAMP BUEHRING, Kuwait -- As the Humvee began to flip over, no one was holding Maryland National Guard Army Cpl. Joseph Giles the right way.

So the gunner's 5-foot, 5-inch frame, weighed down by a Kevlar helmet and armor-plated vest, began to slip out of the arms of the four other soldiers and inch toward the open hole on the top of the military jeep simulator. Eventually, the crew from the 1st Battalion, 175th Infantry Regiment corrected, but the lesson wasn't lost on the war-bound soldiers.

"It felt like a roller coaster, but it's the kind of training we need," said front-seat passenger Cpl. Kyle Lehman, 24, most recently of St. Mary's County.

The Humvee rollover training, instructors said, could provide some of the most useful real-world experience for the state's 1,300 soldiers deploying into Iraq this summer.

Many of the activated units from the Maryland National Guard, who are seeing the largest combat call-up since World War II, completed months of training in Fort Dix, N.J., and are entering Iraq in full force after a stop here for up to two weeks. The headquarters company for the 58th Brigade already helps run Camp Victory in Baghdad, while some Maryland infantry units have already deployed to the Mosul area to provide base security.

After two days of constant travel, the arrival of the infantry battalion's headquarters company at this sandy American training base in northern Kuwait last week started slowly. Once known as Camp Udairi, Camp Buehring, 15 miles from the Iraqi border, has served as the staging and training base for tens of thousands of Iraq-bound troops since opening in January 2003, according to the Web site globalsecurity .org. It has been a busy hub for Army Apache, Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters supporting the war effort, the Web site said.

Exhausted soldiers from Maryland heard introductory briefings, ate chow and caught up on sleep while trying to adjust to temperatures well above 110 degrees.

"It's hot. I'm from Kenya, but it's not like this," said Staff Sgt. Noah Koimur, 35, a full-time guardsman from Edgewood.

His greatest concern now, he said, is his pregnant wife, due around Thanksgiving.

"My wife is having a baby, and I'm not going to be there," said Koimur. "But you train to be a soldier. You must stand to face it."

The American comforts here - including iced mochas at one of two Green Bean coffee cafes or a workout at a state-of-the-art gym - compared favorably with the Spartan life they endured at Fort Dix.

"A lot of us were saying, 'Get us to Iraq. We've had enough of Dix,'" said Pvt. 1st Class Jameel Freeman, 22, of Baltimore, who got married May 5 to beat the deployment date.

His new bride hasn't taken the news of his service overseas all that well.

"I tried to convince her it was just a year-long business trip," said Freeman, an assistant martial arts instructor at the Black Tiger school in Security Square Mall. "She didn't buy it."

Risking life and limb in a combat zone does not pose much of a worry for Freeman, the father of a 2-year-old, he said.

"I tell people I've been living in Baltimore 22 years. There ain't that much difference. The crime rate is just about the same," Freeman said. "Might as well get paid for it."

For the soldiers passing through required training here in Kuwait, the HEAT, or the Humvee Egress Assistance Trainer, is a somewhat odd contraption to prepare them for a combat zone, turning its occupants like meat on a rotating barbecue spit. Many of the Maryland guardsmen who had completed predeployment training at Fort Dix had already been through the contraption.

But instructors in Kuwait said the vehicle rollover simulator was intended to remind incoming troops that common roadside accidents can meet a tragic end.

To make his point, instructor Sgt. Kelvin Johnson cited the most recent available statistics, from October 2006: 336 soldiers in Iraq had been injured in vehicle rollovers since the March 2003 start of the war. Of those, 156 were severely injured or killed.

Almost one-third of those killed died in vehicles designed to better withstand enemy attack, statistics show. When the military moved to "up-armor" Humvees with stronger doors, a side effect was a greater risk of rollovers.

"The doors in a M1114 up-armored Humvee weigh 300 pounds," Johnson said.

Up to 2,500 pounds in extra weight added to fortify the up-armored Humvees, combined with the top-heaviness of the 1,000-pound turret, could spell trouble, Johnson said.

The additional weight, he said, strains the vehicle, potentially leading to a tire blowout that could end with a rollover.

He stressed the importance of seat belts: 97 percent of those wearing lap and shoulder restraints in Humvees survived a rollover in Iraq with little or no injury.

Johnson led the class in a desert environment little different from Iraq - 110 degrees before 10 a.m. - but the HEAT was sheltered inside a large air-conditioned tent.

Sitting in a classroom, about 20 soldiers from the Maryland National Guard heard more about how combat improvements in the Humvee could increase their chances of accidental death.

"Never lock your door around water!" Johnson implored. The combat locks have been credited with stopping insurgents from opening the Humvee doors and throwing explosive devices inside, he said. But those same locks would seal the fate of a soldier in a Humvee sinking under water.

Attention must be paid to the gunner, the armed soldier who pops his head out of a circular hole atop the Humvee, Johnson said. They wear no seat belts, and so the statistics aren't surprising: Gunners were the victims of 81 percent of all rollover fatalities among the American military in Iraq between 2003 and October 2006.

After the Maryland soldiers first failed to secure their gunner, the foursome corrected and locked their hands inside Giles' side body armor plates and around his legs, pulling the gunner back from the brink. They all ended their ride upside down but were able to unbuckle their seat belts and swing open the 300-pound Humvee doors before scrambling out to safety.

For Humvee passenger Sgt. Joseph Michalski, a 42-year-old Army medic from Parkville, the latest training is just a small part of a long, intense run-up to shipping out that started in April and included stints at the University of Maryland's Shock Trauma Center and cadaver lab, both in Baltimore.

"I don't think it's going to be so bad," he said, his face still flush from the rollover ride, "once we finally get there."

Sun reporter Matthew Dolan and photographer Elizabeth Malby are embedded with the 1st Battalion, 175th Infantry of the Maryland National Guard, now in Iraq.

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