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Soldiers describe Iraq duty

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By Kevin Koelling, Managing Editor

One returns to unit after surviving explosion

IRAQ - Although the days start out pretty much the same, with showers and other hygiene functions, chow and mission preparation that includes vehicle and weapons inspections, "there is no typical duty day," said Army Spc. Justin Payton.

The National Guard soldier was one of three who spoke to The News Thursday from Contingency Operating Base Speicher, near Takrit, Iraq. Payton, 22, calls Marengo home and is assigned to Detachment 1, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 151st Infantry Regiment, the Guard unit assigned to the Tell City armory.

As part of the Indiana Army National Guard's 76th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, the detachment left Tell City in January to begin a deployment that took them first to a departure ceremony in Indianapolis, then to Georgia and Kuwait for further training before planting them in Iraq.

This is Payton's first deployment, and each of his missions puts him on a lead gun truck providing security for a convoy bound usually for Baghdad or Mosul. Roads he travels are two- or four-lane paved highways, he said.

Even when a convoy-protection mission isn't part of his duty day, "we always have a schedule," he said. "Some days we do platoon PT (physical training), sometimes it's squad or individual PT."

He does get days when he can simply relax, he said. A morale, welfare and recreation facility offers pastimes such as pool tables, guitars, Internet access and games, Payton said, and civilians working there "try to make everything fun for you."

When he mentioned they schedule dance and karaoke nights, the question arose, "who do you dance with?"

"There's a lot of Air Force here," he said as others listening to the speaker-phone conversation laughed.

Payton said he received good training at Fort Stewart, Ga., before going overseas, "but in some of the situations we've encountered, we've had to adapt."

Sgt. Michael Blair, who serves in human-resources, legal and public-affairs roles, explained much of the stateside training was directed at urban operations. Improvised explosive devices can be planted anywhere along the soldiers' routes, however, and are always changing. As those planting them continually change their tactics, American soldiers have to modify the techniques they use to spot and counter them, he explained.

"It's not near as bad as they make it out on TV," Payton said. "I'm glad we're here, countering the insurgency and giving control back to the Iraqi people. TV made it look like it would be a long, rough deployment, but it's not as bad as it looked."

One of his routine missions, however, did go bad. His convoy made it to Baghdad on a "turn-and-burn" mission, in which the soldiers wouldn't have to provide escort back to their base. An IED exploded on the return run, and the truck Payton was in caught fire immediately. A headset he was wearing got caught on the truck as he tried to jump out, and he fell and hurt his elbow.

Payton attributed his ability to scramble into another vehicle without having to step on a tire, normally necessary to mount the high truck, to adrenalin.

He was sent to Germany for treatment of his injury.

"I have a little bit of nerve damage," he said, explaining his elbow was crushed in the funny-bone area. "I need surgery when I return to the States. I asked if I could come back and finish out my tour.."

"He wanted to get back with his unit," Blair added, "and that's typical of soldiers. He wears a brace, but he's able to function; he just has a loss of feeling in his elbow."

Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Wilson, 30, is from Rockport, but has called Tell City home for about five years. He serves as convoy commander or assistant commander.

"When we go out, I'm in charge of running the convoy," he said, explaining he has to ensure vehicles maintain proper intervals and speeds.

Wilson agreed training, which also came at Camp Atterbury, was good, "but we're continually receiving training here; almost daily."

Much of the instruction is focused on traits, techniques and procedures, including how IEDs are laid out and ways to respond to various combat situations, he said.

This is Wilson's third deployment, his second to Iraq.

"The people here are real good," he said, although soldiers don't interact with them as much as on his initial deployment to the country. But he noted life among the civilians is moving toward normalcy, with people out, conducting business and building structures more than before.

"I don't know what life was like under Saddam, but I can see things are better than they've ever been," he said.

Wilson's schedule starts when he awakes at 4 p.m., gets cleaned up, goes to chow at 5, then classes at 6, he said. Midnight chow and physical training in a weight room or on a track precedes a trip to the motor pool to draw and check out a vehicle. Weapons and radios must be cleaned or checked before vehicles are loaded, then inspected, he said. With everything ready, seven hours of sleep precede mission, intelligence and weather briefings, he continued.

Wilson said soldiers have started making "non-lethal engagements, where instead of doing a convoy, we'll do outreach. We go out, talk to mayors, sheikhs and councilmen, and ask them what their town needs." Such visits also include checks of medical facilities and water supplies, and industries that provide jobs. Language-and-culture classes have been interspersed with urban-combat training toward that effort, he said.

Army officials are unable for security reasons to say when the Tell City-based unit will return, but Wilson wanted to send a message of reassurance to his loved ones.

"Just tell our families we're coming home soon," he said.

Members of the Tell City unit's family-support group are planning a prayer vigil for September, and are seeking help for committees to arrange it. Anyone who'd like to help can call Amy Lumpkins at (812) 897-1890. The group will next meet at 6:30 p.m. July 31 at the armory in Tell City.