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RAMADI, Iraq — You can tell them apart by their crisp new uniforms, untouched by wrinkles or desert sand, and by the way they sit quietly to the side while other soldiers trade war stories and tales of friends wounded or killed.

They are the replacements: soldiers brought in to supplement the ranks as U.S. units in Iraq lose troops in battle, to illness or for administrative reasons.

In soldier parlance, they are “turtles” — a Vietnam-era nickname derived from their supposedly slow arrival in theater — or “FNGs,” a slightly more colorful reference to their “[expletive] New Guy” status.

The replacement system is a practice as old as combat, and as the U.S. mission in Iraq begins its third full year amid a continuing insurgency, it is a more common occurrence for units throughout the country.

Second Lt. John Sommervold, a 24-year-old from Rapid City, S.D., arrived in Iraq early on the morning of Feb. 2. Until then, he had been with the 2nd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division’s rear detachment in Fort Carson, Colo.

The 2nd Brigade, which deployed 3,500 soldiers from South Korea to Iraq last fall, will head to Carson when its year tour in Iraq is over. Because of that, much of the brigade’s administrative work takes place in Colorado; it is also where their replacements are selected.

Sommervold was fresh out of school, originally bound for a platoon command slot with the 4th Infantry Division. Instead, he was assigned as a replacement public affairs officer with 2nd Brigade in Iraq. When he arrived at Camp Ramadi, he was shifted again and was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry.

Over the coming weeks, he will try to integrate into his new unit.

“My mind-set is that I’ll be trying not to do something stupid to get myself killed,” Sommervold said of his first weeks in country.

“You listen to the other officers and [noncommissioned officers] and get their advice and some of the lessons they’ve learned.”

He won’t have the benefit of the five months of combat experience the rest of the battalion has had in one of Iraq’s more dangerous assignments.

“It’s definitely harder coming in this way,” he said.

Personnel officials with the 2nd Brigade have worked for months to prepare their replacement packages, the first of which they received in late January. Since their deployment began in September, the brigade has suffered at least 40 deaths and many more injuries.

“We know that there are always going to be losses, so we were already prepping for replacements” within the first 90 days of the brigade’s arrival in Iraq, said Sgt. 1st Class Hugh Bent, of the personnel staff.

“The losses have varied: it’s medics, mechanics, supply guys. You have to tailor the people coming in base off that.”

The replacement system is no longer a one-to-one proposition. With the shortage of ground combat troops and the different tactics of a guerrilla campaign, every military occupation specialty is in demand.

“Under normal circumstances, previous to the war on terror, it was one-to-one,” said Maj. Tom Huse. “Here that isn’t the case because MOS doesn’t matter. Everyone’s an infantryman first, so everyone is subject to becoming a casualty.”

For 2nd Brigade, the replacements are trained at Fort Carson and wait there before being selected for duty in Iraq. During the wait, they go through a 30-day course on weapons, rules of engagement and cultural awareness, said Sgt. 1st Class Yvette Morrison, who traveled to Kuwait last month to receive and escort the brigade’s first group of replacements.

Other units in the Army put similar courses into place. The Germany-based 1st Armored Division had a nine-day course called Individual Replacement Training.

The goal, Morrison said, is to make sure soldiers are “combat capable” before they are sent to their new units. If a combatant commander feels the soldier isn’t ready when he arrives, the soldier will not be sent into combat, she said.

The biggest lesson: “Stay alert, stay alive,” Morrison said.

Much of the time is spent on rumor control and trying to reassure the new soldiers they will be welcomed into their new unit. Some have even met the soldiers they are replacing while the wounded soldiers convalesce at Fort Carson.

Still, some of the replacements worry about fitting in when they arrive.

“I know it’s going to be hard. How do you just step into some guy’s boots who was under fire with these guys and had been here since the beginning?” asked one of the 28 replacements who arrived at the 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry in downtown Ramadi last week.

The 503rd has taken the heaviest losses in the brigade; their area of operations puts them in almost daily urban combat with insurgents in the city.

“These guys have gone through hell together already. I don’t want to be the new guy who everyone teases. I know I’m going to have to prove myself, and I hope I can do that.”


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