By Ed Brock
FORT STEWART Moving in silence through the trees, U.S. Army Sgt. Carl Fuller communicates with the other soldiers in his squad via hand signals.
A clenched fist raised in the air brings the squad to a halt and with another signal they drop to their knees, assault rifles and eyes pointing in all directions. After a moment's pause they stand up and move on, still extremely cautious.
Fuller, a native of Ellenwood, and the others are members of the Army National Guard's 48th Infantry Brigade. Since January they have been training at Fort Stewart near Savannah in preparation for deployment to Iraq in May.
The men and women in the 48th are undergoing "theater immersion" training in which they behave as they will during their deployment. They sleep in tent cities and experience mock sniper attacks and explosions, said the brigade's commander Brig. Gen. Stewart Rodeheaver.
"It allows us to be pushed, stressed," Rodeheaver said. "We can make as many mistakes here and not overseas."
They have about one more month at Fort Stewart, Rodeheaver said, and then they have a couple of days of leave before going on to Fort Irwin in the California desert for more training.
By May 15 they will be on the way to Iraq.
The first days of training at Fort Stewart were slow, Fuller said, and mostly involved a lot of paperwork.
"Now it's picking up," he said.
On Wednesday, Fuller's squad was engaging in blank fire training on one of the many ranges at Fort Stewart. At one point in the patrol they encountered the "enemy," a collection of mechanical targets that spring up behind earthen embankments as the troops come near.
The soldiers respond, taking cover and firing on the targets. After a few minutes of thumping machine gun fire they deploy some smoke grenades and pull back to the woods.
At the "after action review" the men go over what they did right and what they did wrong in the maneuver. They will do it all over again the next day, this time with live ammunition.
"It's high speed," said Pfc. Jacques Brunson, a member of the 121st Infantry Airborne who trains at Army Garrison Fort Gillem in Forest Park and is a member of Fuller's squad.
Spec. Rodney Davidson said the training was "nothing we can't handle."
"They're putting three to four years of training into three months," said Davidson who also trains at Fort Gillem.
Even behind the lines there is a certain degree of tension. Jonesboro resident Sgt. Mark Hale is stationed with the 140th Headquarters Company managing all of the commodities for the brigade. Even when he steps outside to smoke a pipe he carries an assault rifle slung over one shoulder.
"For the support battalion, this is Iraq," Hale said.
Hale was also in the advanced group from the brigade that came to Fort Stewart ahead of the main body of soldiers to prepare for the training.
"I was down here in December and that's when we did 90 percent of (the physical training on the firing range)," Hale said.
Hale was one of the members of the 48th who deployed to peace-keeping operations in Bosnia in 2001. He said the level of restriction for this training is much higher. Unlike that other deployment, none of the soldiers are allowed to have personal vehicles and they don't get to go home on weekends.
He did have three days of leave to spend with his family. The three days were too short, he said.
"It's not easy being away for four months," Hale said.
Hale's wife, Mary, said she's been working with the families of other 48th soldiers on holding a "family day" on March 26 before the troops go to Fort Irwin.
"That's keeping us busy and we're getting some stuff together for him to take down," she said.
Mark Hale said he's a little worried about the deployment, but not much. He said he could be killed by enemy action in Iraq, or back home he could get hit by a truck.
"When it's your time, it's your time," Hale said. "I'm making all plans in the world to come home in one piece."
Several Clayton and Henry county residents are in the 48th.
Headquartered in Macon, the 48th Brigade has units in more than 30 towns throughout Georgia. Its components include the 1st and 2nd Infantry Battalions in Winder and Albany respectively, the 108th Armor Battalion in Calhoun, the 118th Field Artillery Battalion in Savannah, the 148th Support Battalion in Forsyth, the 648th Engineering Battalion in Statesboro and the 248th Military Intelligence Company at Army Garrison Fort Gillem in Forest Park.