CAMP SHELBY, Miss. - As U.S. Army Humvees rumble down the dusty, gravel roads, the soldiers inside are solicited by aggressive villagers peddling flip-flops and flat loaves of bread.
The sun beats down without pity, reflecting off the golden domes of a Muslim temple and parching the earth below.
Aside from faint Arabic music wafting in from somewhere, it's eerily quiet.
Then a loud explosion. A car bomb has stolen the tranquility and littered the sandy streets with bodies. The locals are now in a frenzy as American troops scurry from victim to victim, checking and treating wounds ranging from superficial to fatal.
This real-life scenario played out recently not in war-torn Afghanistan, but in the swampy marshes of Camp Shelby, Miss., the largest state-owned training site in the country. Last week, members of the media and a few state senators were invited to observe as several Georgia Army National Guard units - including a company from Lawrenceville - received pre-mobilization training before shipping off to fight the war formerly known as the Global War on Terror.
"And they are carrying on the fine tradition of warriors coming out of the state of Georgia," said Col. John L. Smith, commander of the 158th Infantry Brigade.
Georgia soldiers have been at Camp Shelby since late March preparing for their yearlong mission of training the Afghan army and its domestic security forces to help them become self-sufficient.
"We don't have to teach the Afghan army how to fight; they pretty much got that down," Lt. Col. Matthew D. Smith said. "Their shortfall is their inability to sustain themselves."
The Guard's training includes both tactical and cultural instruction. Before arriving in Afghanistan, troops will be prepared to teach combat elements from planning and logistics to reconnaissance and anti-tank tactics to Afghans. They will have had hours of training in clearing buildings, advancing on objectives and securing prisoners.
Essentially, they will be ready to help those national forces infuse American strategies with their own.
Perhaps as important as understanding military tactics is understanding cultural differences that, in the absence of that understanding, could lead to potential conflict with those they are trying to help. To truly be effective, soldiers know they have to win the hearts and minds of Afghans.
For instance, Americans should:
· Shake hands firmly.
· Adopt the Afghan rule on personal space, which is less than most Westerners are used to.
They should not:
· Look an Afghan woman directly in the eyes or point or gesture toward her.
· Use their left hand to communicate.
· Show the soles of their boots.
· Speak to friendlies while wearing sunglasses.
· Force an Afghan's head to the ground.
Maj. Gen. Mick Bednarek, First Army Division East commander, said the multifaceted training is exactly what these soldiers need to prepare them for what's to come.
"It's important that they know the complexity of the situation so when they get there, they will know what to expect," he said. "All of these scenarios are right out of theater, so we don't need to make this up."
Camp Shelby officials said the goal was indeed to make the training as realistic as possible, to "replicate the footprint" of Afghanistan. Villages constructed on the post geographically mirror those this group of soldiers will encounter in country. Specifically, if Village B is east of Village A at Camp Shelby, so will it be in Afghanistan.
In preparing soldiers to interact with locals, real Afghan nationals bring a realism to Camp Shelby training that can't be simulated.
Structures bearing anti-American slogans such as "Osama good USA bad," role players dressed in traditional Muslim garb and bombed-out vehicles make it easy to forget - if only for a moment - that one is still in North America.
"They definitely do their best to bring Afghanistan here," said Lt. Col. Kenny Payne, a Gwinnett native.
The general consensus among the Georgia troops, both first-timers and deployment veterans, is that the training in southern Mississippi is truly preparing them for their duties in the Middle East.
Pfc. Matthew Jackson, 20, an Orlando native who has called Lawrenceville home since 2005, will depart with his Delta Company mates soon for what will be his first deployment. With an uncle and two grandfathers who served as infantrymen, he felt the need to follow in their footsteps. For now, the Georgia State student has put his college education on hold and said he's ready serve his country.
"I think the training has been pretty good," Jackson said. "Our mission there is to teach and to mentor and I think I have a pretty good idea of what I'll be doing there."
On this day, the humidity was high and the temperature hovered just above 90 degrees. A slight breeze provided some reprieve for the men and women sporting their camouflage Battle Dress Uniforms and pounds of protective gear, but weeks of constant combat scenarios have taken their toll. Many, like Jackson, are ready to deploy.
First, though, each Guardsman will have four days of vacation to enjoy.
For Jackson, it means time to relax with his family and girlfriend, who will be coming up from Florida.
They'll forgive him, he hopes, if he doesn't want to paint the town red during his well-deserved time off.
"A day or two of doing nothing, I think they'll understand," he said.