For generations, the rolling hills of Fort McCoy Wis., about 100 miles east of Rochester, have been the training ground for troops preparing to head to war.
Roughly 2,400 members of Minnesota's Red Bull brigade are there right now, in their final weeks of training before deploying to Kuwait.
Once there, they'll provide convoy security, route protection and base defense as other troops leave the war zone in Iraq.
"NO DAYS OFF"
1st Lt. Jolene Carlson, who lives near Shakopee, Minn., spends her days teaching high school science. But now, on one of the largest military forts in the upper Midwest, Carlson, is learning the rhythm of daily life as a soldier. She's one of the 60 percent of soldiers deploying for the first time.
"It's a lot of work. There's no days off. I've realized the last three weeks, I don't know what day it is," Carlson, 35, said. "It's just another day. Your day starts at 5 a.m. and usually gets done usually 10 or 11 p.m. Just every day is that way, so it's intense.
“Your day starts at 5 a.m. and usually gets done usually 10 or 11 p.m.”1st Lt. Jolene Carlson
Fort McCoy is a big place, featuring 60,000 acres, more than 1,432 buildings and facilities and vast grassy fields where soldiers practice mock convoy missions and other scenarios they might encounter during their deployment.
At the firing range, Carlson and 15 other soldiers prepare for something called a stress test. The goal of the 20-minute drill is to get the heart beating and the muscles aching.
They start with pushups, then strap on their 35-pound body armor and run to a lane on the shooting range.
Carlson shoots 20 rounds of live ammunition from an M-4 semi-automatic weapon. She does it all over again wearing a gas mask a few minutes later. It's an exhausting drill, even for someone as fit as she is.
"It's not horrible, but it's work though," Carlson said. "I think the worst part is when you have to put the mask on and you're breathing heavy and you feel like you're grasping for air. I think it gives you an idea of how you do with a higher heart rate and under stress, which is good. It's good training."
LARGEST DEPLOYMENT SINCE WORLD WAR II
At Fort McCoy, soldiers train using the exact trucks and weapons they'll have in Kuwait. They'll repeat these exercises until the middle of July, when they get a 4-day pass to visit family. Until then, they're not allowed off base without approval.
"We've got everything we need here to operate exactly like we will be over there," said Col. Eric Kerska, the 1st brigade's commander. The 46-year-old Kerska said the 55 days soldiers spend at Fort McCoy are essentially a dress rehearsal for Kuwait.
"Seven days a week, 24 hours a day, everybody's together in one spot," Kerska said. "We can start building those teams. We've got all sizes of teams. We've got little, three person-gun truck crews. We've got squads, platoons, companies, battalions, brigades. And they all have their little piece of this puzzle. And this is where we can bring it all together."
Before the July deployment, roughly 300 soldiers from Oklahoma will join the Red Bull brigade, bringing the total number of soldiers to 2,700 and making it Minnesota's largest Red Bull deployment since World War II, according to Kerska. In 2005, the Red Bull Infantry Division sent about 2,500 soldiers to Iraq.
Bringing it all together isn't all work all the time for soldiers at Fort McCoy. They have breaks to check email, do laundry, play football and just get comfortable being a full-time soldier.
After eating lunch at one of the chow halls, 1st Lt. Travis Tomford, 26 of Melrose, read from a sign with common Arabic phrases.
"We got a class on this about a month ago, but it's hard to retain it," Tomford said.
Tomford isn't too worried, though. He knows no matter how much formal training he gets, some things he'll just have to wait to experience.
"You have guys that come back and they'd be with me in training, they've been deployed before, they'd have this stuff down," he said. "I suppose once we get there, a couple months in country, we'll be able to actually use some of these."
Until then, Tomford and hundreds of other soldiers will continue to practice driving trucks, loading weapons and memorizing useful Arabic phrases like hello and thank you.