HOHENFELS, Germany — Shadow-eyed soldiers slog through the fields of churned mud at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center, where the 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division is pressing toward the finish line.

Since mid-October, some 3,600 soldiers have been engaged in a mission rehearsal exercise, which tests the unit’s readiness to deploy to Iraq. And this week, the 2nd Brigade Combat Team is going through its final set of challenges as it heads toward a 15-month deployment likely to begin in March.

After working missions at the platoon and company level, the battalions will be tested in an exercise in which they work as one.

“You always learn something,” said Pfc. Kristopher Riffe, of the 2nd Battalion, 6th Infantry Regiment headquarters.

From raids to working with interpreters and holding meetings with Iraqi tribal leaders, all levels of the brigade are tested. The final rotation of the rehearsal, which involves long hours and many sleepless nights, began Sunday and concludes Nov. 21. If the unit is to deploy, it must pass all the tests and be MRE-certified.

In Hohenfels, snow, sleet and hail have turned the training grounds into a virtual swap. Gusty winds tear at the tents, which the soldiers have called home for nearly a month. While the training is aimed at replicating what the soldiers will experience downrange, the weather has been freezing instead of sweltering.

“The weather is the worst part,” said Pfc. Greg Gordon, of 2-6 headquarters.

Preceding the mission in Hohenfels, the brigade had been preparing in Baumholder.

Some of that training focused on communication and cultural awareness. For instance, Col. Robert P. White, 2nd BCT commander, has expanded the number of soldiers participating in Arabic language courses with the goal of having designated “culture experts” down to the platoon level.

The emphasis seems to be paying some dividends.

In Hohenfels, at “Forward Operating Base East,” 2-6 soldiers are working on scenarios in the “Samarra region.” On one recent exercise, an important sheik paid a surprise visit to the mess hall.

Ninety-nine percent of the soldiers greeted him in Arabic, and used proper hand gestures, said Lt. Col. Michael Shrout, 2-6 commander.

“We want soldiers to be culturally literate and the leaders to be culturally competent,” Shrout said.

Training at Hohenfels also is putting soldiers in a position to accomplish that part of the mission, he said.

“It’s much more indicative of what we’re going to do in Iraq,” Shrout said.

In July, 2nd BCT went through a round of training in Hohenfels, building toward an exercise aimed at preparing them for a November 2007 deployment. But that deployment was postponed until early 2008 and the training was cut short.

However, some soldiers say the previous training is still fresh and they’re ready to deploy.

“I feel comfortable. I feel like I was ready to deploy a couple months ago. We’re pit bulls in a cage. They keep rattling our cage and they won’t let us go,” Gordon said.

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John covers U.S. military activities across Europe and Africa. Based in Stuttgart, Germany, he previously worked for newspapers in New Jersey, North Carolina and Maryland. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.

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