Sergeant Cortney Nelson, 27, Decatur, with the 48th Brigade of the Georgia Army National Guard, trains for deployment to Afghanistan at Fort Stewart on Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013, near Hinesville. It will be Nelson's first deployment.
Photo: Curtis Compton
Photo: Curtis Compton

Georgia's 48th Guard Brigade heads to Afghanistan

HINESVILLE, Ga. — On a chilly November morning, two dozen soldiers from the 48th Brigade of the Georgia National Guard stand in line, waiting for their turn to be tossed like laundry in a front-loading washer.

“Prepare your group for a 180-degree rollover with egress,” announces the trainer, Sgt. 1st Class Steven Johnson, standing outside a hybrid monster that appears to be one-half military transport, one-half carnival ride. “Egress only when told to do so.”

Six soldiers strapped inside the bright tan modified MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicle begin to chant “Rollover! Rollover!” as their multi-ton behemoth is turned upside down, rotating on massive gimbals. The interior video camera shows the occupants laughing, hanging from their five-point seat-belts, the straps on their vests waving in the air, as a few coins from their pockets rain down on the ceiling.

Turning themselves loose, the members of the Guard land with little grace on their shoulders and backs and helmets, scrambling to find the one door that hasn’t been automatically locked. “Driver door! Driver Door!” they shout.

The soldiers are learning how to exit an overturned vehicle, but sometimes events solve that problem for you.

In 2007, 1st Lt. Jeremiah Stafford was serving as a gunner on a Humvee when an IED flipped his vehicle and blew him out of the turret like a cork out of a popgun. On two other rollovers he just tumbled along with everyone else, and came away with bangs and scratches.

Yet rollovers kill soldiers, and despite his wealth of experience, Stafford considers the training this morning at Fort Stewart to be eminently valuable.

“These drills are imperative,” said the 32-year-old Virginia Highland resident, whose civilian job was in statewide drug enforcement. “It saves lives.”

Stafford, and about 200 other members of the 48th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (including his wife, Capt. Julia Stafford) are training at Fort Stewart, gearing up to make yet another trip to Afghanistan, the second for many of these soldiers. After training here and at Camp Shelby in Mississippi, the team will go overseas in January. It will serve in logistical support near Kabul, working to close down bases as the war winds down and the U.S. presence dwindles.

They may be the last unit from Georgia assigned to duty in that theater. Some are calling it The Last Hooah.

They are psyched. “These guys all volunteered — they fought tooth and nail to go to the most dangerous place on the planet,” said Sgt. 1st Class Bryan Neal, a trainer at Stewart.

The process of picking the team was sort of like NFL draft day, said Lt. Col Jeffrey C. Dickerson, its deputy commander. “I had to turn people down, and say ‘Sorry, there’s no more room on the bus,’” Dickerson said. He is a rangy 47-year-old whose family is from Byromville, a wide place in the road between Montezuma and Vienna.

Like most of these citizen-soldiers, he has worked in the regular world, serving as a U.S. probation officer while doing Guard training one weekend a month and two weeks every summer.

In some ways the regular Army is a world apart, with its own acronym-heavy language and its own culture. The Guard, full of soldiers who also have civilian jobs, has feet in both worlds, and guardsmen believe that makes them well-suited for this particular mission.

“It’s not a typical go-kick-in-doors operation,” said Dickerson. “There’s a lot of project management going on.” These soldiers will help coordinate the disassembling of a huge operation. There are 44,500 troops still in Afghanistan, or about half the number of people Delta Air Lines employs. Day-job skills in managing construction projects and controlling inventory flow will come in handy.

Those skills are second nature to Capt. Julia Stafford, a full-time supply management specialist with the Guard. She will be assistant logistics officer for the brigade, making sure there are boots and cots and MREs for every soldier on the ground. Her own personal logistics will be simplified by the fact that she’s deploying with her husband.

“When you leave your significant other behind, you’ve lost a year of your relationship,” said Stafford, 29. “Neither one of us will be sitting at home, worried. And that opportunity is there for us to have lunch together, to go to the gym together.”

But not to sleep together. She doesn’t plan on requesting communal lodging. “He’s a disaster, I’m a neat freak. Having our stuff in a small confined area for a year might actually impact our marriage.”

While corporate skills will be useful in Kabul, the guardsmen must also know how to shoot, move and seek cover. Their training at Stewart includes a paintball battle with “enemy” forces and an elaborate urban-firefight scenario at a custom-built “village” buried deep in Stewart’s wooded acreage, complete with huts, a barnyard, live goats and actors in costumes.

In their liveliest exercise, the soldiers practice crawling over walls, inside sewer pipes and through barbed wire while attacking a machine gun nest, with simulated explosions and gunfire all about them. This occurs in another woodsy complex nicknamed “The Suck,” which they do not regard fondly. During wet weather the trainees will find themselves in water-filled ditches, weighed down with 100 lbs. of equipment, while “mortar fire” rains mud and pine straw.

“This is where it kicks your butt,” said trainer Staff Sgt. James Kleinheinz, standing beneath a sign that declares brightly “Welcome to the Suck!”

Though many of these soldier have combat experience, the training here includes the very basics: how to strip an M-4, how to zero-in your sights, how to use the new tritium-powered electronic sight.

Maj. Matt Howard, 37, of Dahlonega, is, among other things, a firearms specialist with the GBI, so he knows how to shoot. But he and Capt. Craig Keller, who has deployed twice, to Panama and Kosovo, absorb the class in good humor.

How did they like the instruction?

Howard: “I laughed, I cried.”

Keller: “It was a journey of discovery.”

Howard: “It was like ‘Cats,’ I could see it over and over again.”

Howard and Keller will run the Police Assistance Team, and their saturnine temperaments will be an advantage in tense moments dealing with tribal leaders, Afghan police officers and civilians. In that setting, Howard points out, nobody switches their weapon to fully-automatic. “It’s like law enforcement: When the bad guy is around, you want to go in with as little force as necessary. It’s a thinking man’s game.”

But, as Howard discovered at a recent departure ceremony, it’s hard to keep cool when your 11-month-old daughter is holding out her chubby hands for a piggy-back ride.

Howard did manage to keep his game face on as he paraded little Madison around on his shoulders. “He’s pretty stoic,” said Madison’s mom, Elizabeth Howard, “but his heart is going to ache.”

About 200 troops, and perhaps 700 family members and visiting dignitaries, gathered in a ballroom at the arena connected to the Marriott Hotel in Macon to formally bid the combat team goodbye. Even though many would see each other one more time at Christmas before the brigade actually departs, it was a tearful event.

As an Army band played “You’re a Mean One Mr. Grinch,” “Sleigh Ride,” and other holiday songs, Bill Dickerson stood with his arm around his son, Jeff. “I wish he would quit,” said the elder Dickerson, who runs an auto repair and towing business in Cordele. Jeff Dickerson has deployed three times, and his wife, Maria, has deployed twice, with the Air National Guard.

Bill Dickerson didn’t want to let him go. “I wish he would quit,” the father repeated. “But I’m proud of him.”

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