New courses prepare soldiers for Iraq

CAMP ROBERTS -- Army Spc. Nicholas Wissert of Merced stood in a queue of camouflaged soldiers, quizzing one on 15 Arabic phrases they'll rely on when they begin a mission in Iraq at the end of the year.

They aced the practice, repeating phrases for "Stop," "Drop your weapons" and "Do you need help?" It sounds like basic training for soldiers bound for the Middle East, but Wissert didn't get Arabic lessons when he deployed with the 1st Battalion of the 184th Infantry Regiment three years ago.

"I wish we had this class the first time," said Capt.Guillermo Adame, who leads Wissert's company in the Modesto-based National Guard battalion.

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Iraqis "see a soldier with all this gear on and it puts them back. We say a few phrases and they let their guards down," Adame said.

The language class wasn't the only improvement in combat training that Adame noted during the past month of training at Camp Roberts, a 43,000-acre base north of Paso Robles.

Two companies from the 184th and a Southern California battalion from the 185th Armored Regiment are expected to protect convoys during their yearlong assignment in the war zone. More than 800 soldiers are preparing for the mission.

Adame and leaders from the battalions shaped their training to that task. They split their soldiers into the small teams that likely will form to travel in Humvees, helping them build relationships that will pay off when they get to Iraq.

"We rely on each other, so I basically have to understand them to know how they're going to react in certain situations," said Sgt. Javier Castillo, a member of the 184th who lives in Modesto. "Everyone reacts differently."

Soldiers centered their early training on getting in shape and learning to use their weapons. They woke up at 4:30 a.m. each day, went on long runs and broke for hikes in dry heat, toting their gear into Central California's coastal foothills.

They practiced using heavy weapons, such as the .50-caliber machine guns that will sit on the back of their Humvees in Iraq. A typical day eased to an end with a 5 p.m. dinner, but they often had classes afterward. Some of the subjects included basic medical skills they can use to keep their colleagues alive.

They also made time for simulations of what they might encounter in Iraq, such as mock checkpoints where trainers hid fake improvised explosive de- vices.

"Last time, we didn't know what our mission was, so we were training for everything," Adame said. "By the time we found out what our mission was, we could've done things that could've helped us."

The focus in the latest training kept up morale in the companies. They finished their most difficult tasks a week early, giving them time to clean weapons and discuss what's ahead.

Wissert, the specialist from Merced, is glad he's receiving the extra training.

He thought he'd benefit from the language lessons and from the drills he practiced at Camp Roberts.

"Our enemy's always changing," he said. "We have to always change."