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Florida troops hit the sand, ready for year's mission

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on March 12, 2010.

Pvt. 1st Class Kimberly Egipciaco was excited about deploying with the Florida National Guard when she was training at Camp Blanding, and was still excited when she and 2,500 other Guard members headed to Texas for final training before going overseas.

Her excitement hasn't faded now that she's in Kuwait, where she and the rest of the 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team began arriving at the end of February.

"Being that it's my first deployment, seeing the Forward Operating Base for the first time was INTERESTING, " she said in an e-mail from the region. "It still feels like I'm doing some type of training in the U.S. It still hasn't hit me yet - the fact that we are on the other side of the world."

Egipciaco, along with the rest of the Guard's 53rd Infantry Brigade, is preparing to tackle the mission they'll handle for the next year: Helping most of the rest of the U.S. military pack up and pull out of Iraq.

Already, the troops can tell the area feels quieter than the war zone it was a couple of years ago, said Spc. Michael Houston of Jacksonville, e-mailing in between attending briefings preparing him for this deployment's first mission.

Before the 53rd headed to Iraq, it went through a month or so of training in Florida and 45 days of workups at Fort Hood, where it had to deal with snow and freezing rain.

"It's funny how we went from a really cold place to now a much warmer environment, " said Egipciaco, an Orlando resident.

In Texas, the Guard soldiers brushed up on training they missed in Florida and worked on some of the basic tasks they'll be doing in the Middle East.

BOOST IN PREPARATION

Having the training in Florida before leaving for Texas was a new approach for the Florida Guard, with the aim of letting the soldiers spend more time at home.

It also turned out to better prepare the soldiers, said Master Sgt. Tom Kielbasa, a spokesman for the Guard.

The 2,500 members of the Guard were the best marksmen trained at Fort Hood, said Maj. Gen. Charles Anderson of the 1st Army Division West, with every battalion averaging 80 percent in live fire training and nine mounting crews racking up a perfect score.

"That's a testimony to the people in Florida that helped get them ready, " Kielbasa said.

The troops were helped by the fact that many had seen combat before.

"Training was excellent, " said Sgt. Miquel Erlandson of Jacksonville, whose platoon had the squadron's highest average for mounted gunnery. "The training events were great for the people who had never deployed and it knocked the rust off and updated the veterans like myself as to what is currently going on in theater."

In Texas, a number of soldiers took the opportunity to work on basic medical skills, said Sgt. Brandon Alwin, who worked with soldiers certified as combat lifesavers.

"The basic medical training that we provided supplied the soldiers with the skills and confidence necessary in order to save the lives of their fellow soldiers in the heat of combat, " the Jacksonville resident said in an e-mail from Kuwait.

In their first days overseas, the focus of the Guard has been on paperwork and other bureaucratic issues, with some of the soldiers grabbing a little bit of extra sleep during this short period when doing so is possible.

Getting extra shuteye might be a little harder over the next nine months, as the 53rd concentrates on a mission that harkens back to its role seven years ago.

"In 2003, they were participating in the initial invasion, " Kielbasa said. "Some of those same soldiers are going back there and bringing combat units out of Iraq. It's almost like bookends."



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This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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