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Romanian soldiers Cpl. Iacob Florin, left, and Cpl. Liviu Deaconu storm a building during urban combat training with Texas National Guard soldiers.

Romanian soldiers Cpl. Iacob Florin, left, and Cpl. Liviu Deaconu storm a building during urban combat training with Texas National Guard soldiers. (Russ Rizzo / S&S)

Romanian soldiers Cpl. Iacob Florin, left, and Cpl. Liviu Deaconu storm a building during urban combat training with Texas National Guard soldiers.

Romanian soldiers Cpl. Iacob Florin, left, and Cpl. Liviu Deaconu storm a building during urban combat training with Texas National Guard soldiers. (Russ Rizzo / S&S)

Cpl. Costel Enache, a Romanian Marine who played an insurgent during urban combat training, fires on Texas National Guard soldiers during a training exercise.

Cpl. Costel Enache, a Romanian Marine who played an insurgent during urban combat training, fires on Texas National Guard soldiers during a training exercise. (Russ Rizzo / S&S)

Members of the 4th Platoon, 1st Battalion, 112th Armored Regiment of the Texas National Guard charge a mock city during urban combat training.

Members of the 4th Platoon, 1st Battalion, 112th Armored Regiment of the Texas National Guard charge a mock city during urban combat training. (Russ Rizzo / S&S)

Texas National Guard Pvt. Luke Guiette, background, Pfc. James Harris, center, and Pvt. Jedediah Higgins fire blanks from M-16 rifles at snipers hunkered in plywood buildings.

Texas National Guard Pvt. Luke Guiette, background, Pfc. James Harris, center, and Pvt. Jedediah Higgins fire blanks from M-16 rifles at snipers hunkered in plywood buildings. (Russ Rizzo / S&S)

Spc. Brad Salomon, right, and Sgt. Jorge Chacon carry Master Sgt. Penny Patrick off the battlefield on a table after Patrick’s computerized vest tells him that he has sustained a chest wound. It was all part of a training exercise for Texas National Guardsmen and Romanian soldiers last month at Babadag Training Area in Romania.

Spc. Brad Salomon, right, and Sgt. Jorge Chacon carry Master Sgt. Penny Patrick off the battlefield on a table after Patrick’s computerized vest tells him that he has sustained a chest wound. It was all part of a training exercise for Texas National Guardsmen and Romanian soldiers last month at Babadag Training Area in Romania. (Russ Rizzo / S&S)

“Hail-o, hail-o infantry, Queen of battle follow me.”

BABADAG TRAINING AREA, Romania — The words boom from the mouths of soldiers as they march in the orange glow of a new sun. Gravel crunches under their black boots, punctuating each line as they move in unison. It is early still, and the hill awaits.

The cadence is unfamiliar for some in the platoon. These are mechanics, tankers, cooks and medics, not infantrymen. At least, they weren’t.

As they make their way to the trucks that will take them to infantry training at the Babadag Training Area near the Black Sea coast of Romania, the 29 Texas National Guard soldiers find themselves marching toward something much bigger than another day of running through brush and firing blanks from M-16s.

They are at the forefront of two major shifts in the Army as it becomes lighter and faster. In coming years, members of the 1st Battalion, 112th Armored Regiment, along with other battalions in the 36th Infantry Division, will be retrained as the brigade sheds the tanks of its Cold War past. Some will become infantrymen fighting battles in cities using just their rifles and their wits, rather than tanks.

They are beginning that transformation in a country at the cusp of becoming a key U.S. training hub.

After two weeks of training in Romania, it is clear that the push to move training from traditional locations such as Grafenwöhr, Germany, to more remote locations such as Romania, Bulgaria and Poland could prove popular with soldiers. They rave about the temporary base’s accommodations, including an Internet cafe, hot showers and air-conditioned tents, and opportunities to experience a new country.

Under a new model for more expeditionary fighting, the Army could use these training areas as “lily pad” bases, giving soldiers deployed from the United States a place to stop on their way to more remote locations.

Less clear is how much success the Army will see as it molds infantrymen out of veterans trained in other fields. The experience of these National Guard soldiers shows the risks of leaning on an older, less-experienced force to fight urban wars, an inevitable result of limited active-duty forces during wartime.

“They put me in a barber chair, Spun me around, I had no hair.”

Unlike most Guard units, the 1-112 completed its annual training alongside members of the 7th Army Training Command out of Grafenwöhr, using the group’s high-tech gear. Members of three other Texas National Guard battalions also took part in the two-week training exercise called ROMEX ’05, organized by the 1st Armored Division and which wrapped up last week.

But the added help came with a not-so-welcome twist: the hill.

At first glance, the hill isn’t imposing. The slope seems gradual, even gentle. But for troops loaded down with 40 pounds of ammunition, body armor and other gear, it becomes a daunting challenge to run up two or three times a day.

After the first day of urban training, talk in the platoon was of the hill. One soldier twisted an ankle stepping in a hole. Others complained of sore muscles, wondering aloud if they could make it another day.

“It’s a killer,” said Spc. Brad Salomon, who at 44 years old is the oldest member of his platoon.

Salomon is determined not to show his age. He takes offense when younger soldiers offer to carry his medical bag.

It’s an experience shared by many Texas National Guard soldiers in the 36th Infantry Division, which until recently was the 49th Armored Division.

It is an uncomfortable change for some. Some soldiers said they felt too old to run up hills and shoot at insurgents. Others simply miss their old jobs.

“A lot of the younger soldiers like this gung-ho stuff,” said Staff Sgt. Rodrick Boykin, a squad leader. “Older guys, they’re stuck in their ways. They’ll do it for a month, but they want to get back to their old jobs.”

Both circumstances apply to Sgt. Terry Blackburn, a 39-year-old tanker who joined the National Guard because of the rage he experienced after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Unlike others in his unit who will likely go back to their old jobs in other units after ROMEX ’05, Blackburn knows he is a prime target to become an infantryman.

“I’ll probably go infantry,” Blackburn said with a shrug. “I’m too old.”

Blackburn said he enjoyed the infantry training, but 20 years working as a carpenter and five years working in tanks have left his body unable to sustain its rigors.

“It sucks,” said Blackburn, who points to the leftover adhesive on his left shoulder where his 49th AD patch used to hang. “I don’t want to give up my tank.”

Others, like 36-year-old Staff Sgt. Brian Beauchamp, are more complacent about the change.

“I’m not champing at the bit to do it,” said Beauchamp, a mechanic whose last infantry experience came during basic training 17 years ago. “[But] if the president of the United States wants me to do it, then here I am. I signed up.”

“I used to wear faded jeans, Now I’m wearing Army greens.”

For soldiers facing the infantry after years of doing something else, there are concerns other than just physical conditioning. There is the inexperience, too.

Master Sgt. Penny Patrick compared the transition to someone with only rudimentary kitchen skills becoming head chef at a restaurant.

“Yeah, you can scramble eggs, and probably watched your mamma baking some biscuits,” Patrick said. “But this is a whole new ball game.”

Members of the 4th Platoon, 1-112 formed a cohesive group with clear leadership lines and motivated soldiers. On their off time, they joked and shared stories. During exercises, they were all business.

But early in their urban combat exercises, inexperience showed.

Squad leaders drawing a map in the sand debated where they were located in relation to the city. They had trouble deciding where to put their medics and large guns. Failing to come up with the name of a machine gun, one squad leader referred to it simply as “the long one.”

Walking up the hill, a soldier squawked over the radio that a vehicle was approaching from 12 o’clock, which would have been directly in front of him. It was behind him.

The platoon’s approach to the city of six plywood buildings at the top of the hill was slow but managed to impress the trainer-observers. The soldiers appeared organized, offering suppressing fire from one side as another squad approached the first building. Early shots proved accurate, as Salomon, the platoon’s medic, bagged the first kill from 470 feet away, and 35-year-old Spc. James Riden, one of the platoon’s few experienced infantrymen, hit enemies from 256 feet and 100 feet.

Once the soldiers reached the city, though, they scattered in no particular order, exposing communication problems that plagued the platoon all week.

“Nobody looks like they know what they’re doing,” Sgt. 1st Class Thomas Welch, an observer with 7th ATC, said during a replay later of the approach.

Welch took the soldiers to task for loitering outside before buildings were clear.

“If you’ve got nothing to do, don’t do it outside,” Welch said. “That’s when you get killed.”

The soldiers accomplished one objective — capturing the leader of the terrorist cell — but failed two others. They did not win popularity with the locals or legitimize the local government by getting the mayor and local police involved.

Twice during an after-action review, Welch made references to Iraq. He stressed the importance of using translators in a foreign country and of keeping insurgents alive to extract intelligence.

Welch said an active-duty platoon would have completed the exercise in 10 minutes. It took the Texas National Guard platoon one hour.

“They’re not bad soldiers,” Boykin said. “It’s just that they don’t have much experience with this infantry stuff.”

“Mamma, mamma don’t you cry, Your little boy ain’t going to die.”

During a visit to ROMEX ’05 last month, Romania’s defense minister said he expected to complete negotiations by September to give the U.S. military more access to the country’s military bases. U.S. officials say they want more frequent training here to transform to a more expeditionary fighting force and reclassify soldiers in jobs more fit for modern warfare.

It is early still, and the hill awaits.

Guard duty a chance for redemption

BABADAG TRAINING AREA, Romania — National pride. Career advancement. The chance to blow things up.

People join the National Guard for many reasons. For two members of the Texas National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 112th Armored Regiment who took part in a training exercise in Romania this month, joining was a matter of redemption.

The oldest members of their 29-man training platoon, Spcs. Brad Salomon, 44, and Joseph McBain, 41, are on similar missions to clear military pasts that were less than stellar.

Both described themselves as young punks when they joined the service at 17 years old, and both admit to squandering opportunities.

After two years and five months serving in the Navy, Salomon deserted, much to the disappointment of his father, he said.

During the Persian Gulf War in the early 1990s, Salomon tried to redeem his past by joining the Army. He went as far as writing his congressman for help but was turned down, he said.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Salomon talked to a man in a mall about his failed attempt to join the service. A week later, he saw the man again, this time wearing a Texas National Guard uniform. He turned out to be a recruiter.

Salomon worked with the recruiter for months to join the Texas National Guard, filling out paperwork and getting in shape. He went on a strict diet of chicken and salad and lost 27 pounds.

He signed up for six years with the Guard, calling it a “do-over” from his Navy service.

“It was like a monkey on my back,” Salomon said of his Navy record.

Salomon’s dad cried when he learned that his son had joined, he said.

For the past two weeks, Salomon’s face has turned beat red as he hustled to keep up with soldiers less than half his age.

McBain’s four-year career in the Marine Corps stands out for how unremarkable it was, he said. In four years, he never got promoted from lance corporal.

The attacks of Sept. 11 greatly affected McBain, he said, so he decided to join the National Guard despite strong objections from his pacifist wife and conflicts with his own Buddhist beliefs, he said.

“I’m trying to clean the slate,” McBain said. “When you get a second chance, you take it.”

After 10 months, he was promoted to specialist.

McBain, who is a cook, said the physical exertion of infantry training in Romania and the early mornings have taken a toll on his body.

“I never really pushed myself,” McBain said. “Here, I am pushing myself.”

— Russ Rizzo


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