On a recent training day at Camp Ripley, near Little Falls, the frigid morning air whips into a Humvee through an open hatch. Pfc. Timothy Duel, 29, stands in the rotating gunner turret.
Duel pivots to survey the terrain around him. It's a vast expanse of dry Minnesota swampland that's meant to look like a scene from Iraq.
The Humvee stops near a practice range where Pfc. Donnie Cadwalader, 28, helps Duel load the M-240 with live ammunition. The weapon can fire up to 950 rounds per minute.
He lowers his body over the machine gun, presses his cheek up to the scope, and aims at a tiny target hundreds of feet away. Cadwalader and Duel take aim.
"Lock and load... Engage the enemy. Kill the target!" Cadwalader says as Duel begins to fire at the targets. "You're high. You're high."
The scenario is all part of a training exercise meant to prepare National Guard soldiers like Duel and Cadwalader, both members of the 1st Batallion, 194th Armor Delta Company in St. Cloud, with as many war-like experiences as possible before they deploy. It also helps build their confidence with the weapons and with each other.
This will be the first deployment for both men. Cadwalader said he sees the deployment as a rite of passage.
"Signing up in a time of war, yeah, there is nervousness. But the funner part is all the training that we get to do," he said. "I enjoy it more and more every month. As long as we're out here training, I enjoy it."
Between now and late May, 2,700 men and women of Minnesota's 1st Brigade, 34th Infantry Division will complete dozens of intensive training exercises like this one.
Each month, their training will focus on a range of exercises, from combat moves to personal health and cultural assimilation. They'll also get their teeth cleaned, write wills, and talk about their religious beliefs with a chaplin. Nearly two-thirds of soldiers in the Red Bull brigade are veterans.
This deployment will be the largest Minnesota National Guard deployment since World War II. It's expected to last one year.
In 2005, the Red Bull Infantry Division sent about 2,500 soldiers to Iraq. In 2011, from a base in Kuwait, they'll provide convoy security, route protection and base defense as other troops leave the war zone in Iraq.
This massive deployment has redefined the nature of Minnesota's National Guard service, transforming part-time soldiers into full-time warriors.
NO FALSE SENSE OF SECURITY FOR COMMANDER
Perhaps no one has more responsibility for the safety and success of the 1st Brigade's mission than Col. Eric Kerska, the brigade commander.
Towering at 6-foot-3, Kerska, 45, is a two-time Iraq veteran -- Operation Desert Storm and a 2005 tour in Iraq -- and a self-described "boots-on-the-ground" leader. This weekend its his soldiers who are front and center at Camp Ripley.
Kerska heads around the camp to check in on troops. As the person in charge of the units' training, Kerska said he's focused on preparing his soldiers for the worst possible scenarios.
"I refuse to be lulled into a sense of security that this is going to be easier than last time. I hope it is easier than last time," he said, "but I'm not willing to bet my guys' and gals' futures on that. "
Kerska said he's confident his brigade will be ready for combat in six months, in part because there's a greater sense of urgency during their monthly training sessions now.
Camp Ripley bustles with activity on these weekends. Most of the soldiers come wearing full camouflage fatigues, and during specific exercises, many wear full battle gear including a helmet and about 35 pounds of body armor.
Those who have served before train to refine their skills. Those going for the first time train to learn because they have no idea what's ahead.
Like all soldiers, they'll leave behind husbands, wives and children -- along with their careers as firefighters, miners, lawyers and roofers -- for about a year.
Pfc. Cadwalader's girlfriend is expecting a baby in April.
"It's going to get more nerve-wracking as the days go by," he said.
TRAINING THE TROOPS
Col. Kerska checks in on another of Camp Ripley's training locations. Called the "shoot house," and made of brick and mortar, it's a maze-like building where soldiers practice knocking down bolted doors, navigating narrow passageways, and attacking enemy targets.
Kerska meets with Staff Sgt. Justin Goff, from the 1st Squadron, 94th Cavalry in Duluth, a range safety officer who's monitoring security cameras as soldiers charge into a room. They're practicing with dry, blank rounds right now, but eventually they'll do the same exercise with live ammunition.
"How's it going, the dry runs? Are we on track?" Kerska asks.
"Some of it is going through. You can kind of see when a new guy goes through, like right here," Goff says. "He's talking through a lot of stuff."
The transformation from "new guy" to soldier comes quickly at Ripley.
Repeating these drills is what Sgt. Greg Schlichting, of Cambridge, is focused on now.
The 31-year old is sitting inside a Humvee simulator with four other soldiers.
The vehicle sits on a rotating pivot that can roll the vehicle upside down.
Outside the Humvee, Cpt. Jon Holliday, also from the Duluth squad, talks to the team through an intercom.
"You are driving in the desert and your driver is falling asleep," he tells the team.
Holliday pushes a button on the control panel and the car rolls over. Soldiers need to figure out how to get out with all their equipment.
The soldiers release their seatbelts and work to secure their weapons.
It takes the soldiers less than 2 minutes to emerge from the Humvee. Sweat drips from Sgt. Schlichting's chin as he steps out. It's the third time he's done this rollover exercise and he admits sometimes they get repetitive. But after serving in Iraq in 2005, he knows there's never enough practice.
"I think they took on a different meaning more when I came back from the last deployment. I thought that the training was more important," he said. "Before, I didn't think it was fully important as it is, and I ended up using all the training while deployed."
Schlichting and hundreds of other soldiers learn from these drills, but there are still plenty of unanswered questions -- like where they'll mobilize, how long they'll deploy, and exactly how they'll respond to an enemy.