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Stryker brigade trains for early deployment

FORT LEWIS - Sgt. Jason Moreira is antsy.

He checks his canteen and weapon Wednesday, puts another dip of chewing tobacco under his lip, instructs a soldier in their Stryker armored vehicle and swears repeatedly.

His unit is about to participate in its last major training exercise before deploying to Iraq in April, and although the battles aren't yet real, the realization of what's to come is hitting home.

"My mother is going to have three kids over there in a month and a half," said Moreira, a team leader for the 2nd Platoon, A Troop whose brother and sister already have deployed. "Three out of four. I don't know how she does it."

This is Moreira's first tour to Iraq.

Preparations

The 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division has anticipated its Iraq tour since arriving at the Army post in 2005 - with a different unit name - to transform itself into Fort Lewis' third Stryker brigade.

Adjustments in U.S. military strategy have moved the brigade's deployment from May to April, and combat-readiness exercises planned for the California desert instead are taking place at the Army post in the cool, damp Northwest.

Observers with the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La., came to Fort Lewis to prepare soldiers for their experience in Iraq, partly by playing the role of the enemy.

There are many more of those "enemy" roles than in December, said Cpl. Walter Huber, a cavalry scout for C Troop, 2nd Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment. He was referring to observers now posing as death squads, al-Qaida terrorists and Saddam Hussein loyalists.

Wednesday morning's exercise highlighted a key job for the brigade beyond working with Iraqi security forces in Baghdad to turn back the insurgency.

The squadron and C Company of the 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment joined in a training mission to capture a person who supposedly provided financial support and weapons to the insurgency. U.S. forces are trying to capture such "high-value targets" in Iraq, said Capt. Nick Shallcross, C Troop's executive officer.

Wednesday morning, after sleeping in their vehicles all night to simulate battle conditions, Moreira and his foot soldiers scrambled from their Stryker vehicle amid simulated gunfire and explosions from rocket-propelled grenades.

A pink-tinged dawn sky illuminated Leschi Town, Fort Lewis' urban-fighting training facility, as mist obscured the battlefield.

Soldiers fought the three-hour mock battle using the Army's high-tech version of laser tag, known as the Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System, or MILES. When they were "hit," the observers pulled a card from their sleeve pocket that indicated the seriousness of the injury.

Back-to-back missions

This force-on-force training continues exercises that have been conducted at Fort Lewis all month. The soldiers found the previous 48 hours hectic with one mission after another and said they sleep when they can.

"It's been a wild last couple of nights," said Shallcross, who said he had slept three hours in two days.

The Northwest's wooded terrain, in which enemy forces easily can hide, "keeps you on your toes," Huber said. The soldiers will have to adjust to monitoring wide-open areas when they get to Iraq, he said.

"We have a good feeling about it (the deployment)," Huber said. "We know our jobs. ... We're definitely prepared to go."

Meanwhile, Moreira's training mission was to secure a hospital. After establishing a roadblock, he and his foot soldiers engaged gunmen and snipers in a building serving as a three-story hospital. The squadron suffered numerous casualties, according to the monitoring technology used in the training, and the sergeant was "shot" while trying to help evacuate a casualty and also had to be carted off.

Earlier, during a break in the battle, Moreira had ribbed Spc. Zach Johnson, who had suffered a "fatal" wound.

"The one fun mission we do, and I get offed within 20 minutes," Johnson complained.

In April, the experience in a war zone will become real.

Christian Hill covers the city of Lacey and military for The Olympian. He can be reached at 360-754-5427 or chill@theolympian.com. Stryker brigades

Three Stryker Brigade Combat Teams call Fort Lewis home, and one is forming there. Each brigade has 3,600 to 4,000 soldiers and about 300 eight-wheeled armored vehicles.

The 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division is deployed to Baghdad. It is the brigade's second deployment to Iraq since the 2003 invasion.

The 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division will deploy to Baghdad in April. It arrived at Fort Lewis in 2005 as the 2nd Cavalry Regiment.

The 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, the second Stryker brigade developed at Fort Lewis, was renamed the 2nd Cavalry Regiment and moved to Germany.

The 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, a new Stryker brigade, is forming at Fort Lewis. It will be renamed the 2nd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division later in the year.

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