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Reporter's Notebook: Camp Ripley - Monday, June 21

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CAMP RIPLEY, Minn. - Nearly 3,000 Iowa National Guard soldiers are training this month in Minnesota. It's part of their preparation for the Iowa Guard's largest deployment since World War II, one that will send those soldiers to Afghanistan. TV9's Mark Geary is there, and tells us what it is like in the barracks.

We woke up around 6:00 a.m. and headed down for breakfast at the barracks at Camp Ripley. No one slept well in the barracks, so everyone was a little groggy. Pancakes, hash browns and scrambled eggs were on the menu. I'm used to working the late shift at KCRG, so I couldn't really eat anything that early. Yet, pretty much everyone in the National Guard chowed down the plate of food. It certainly helped them get through another grueling day at Camp Ripley.

We headed over to a runway area around 7:30 a.m. The National Guard was planning to test a high-tech unmanned surveillance aircraft. But, weather concerns delayed takeoff. We spent hours waiting for the ideal weather conditions for the plane. The device costs about one million dollars. Members of the National Guard obviously didn't want anything bad to happen to it, so they took extreme precaution.

During the downtime, we wandered over to a group of soldiers who handle vehicle maintenance. It's a critical job. No one in the military wants to get stranded out in the desert during a mission. Private First Class Terry Spencer from Clinton is one of the guys trying to keep everyone's cars and trucks in perfect condition. We also spoke to his comrade Private First Class Jeremy Lawrence. He's from Mechanicsville and he told us he didn't know a whole lot about vehicle maintenance before he enlisted, but now he's confident in his abilities.

Next, we started talking to soldiers about the blue barrels you see in front of just about every building at Camp Ripley. We wanted to know why they were there and why every soldier kept pointing their weapons at them before they entered any building. It turns out the barrels are a safety device. Soldiers must aim their weapons at them to ensure they are "clear" before they walk into an area. In other words, they have to make sure they don't have any ammunition in the chamber that could accidentally go off and hurt someone. The barrels contained a variety of different substances (such as rubber tires) to help block any bullets or ammunition that could get discharged during this safety procedure.

Then, we went back to the runway. Governor Chet Culver happened to be at Camp Ripley for a few days. He met us out at the airport to talk about his commitment to the National Guard. Culver recently visited Iowa troops in Iraq and he told me that he'd love to visit Iowa National Guard members in
Afghanistan during their deployment.

About ten minutes later, the plane finally took off. It was about the size of a card table and looked deceptively simple. Yet, this aircraft can travel up to 90 miles per hour and send back live images of the ground. It allows the military to get a picture of the enemy without sending a soldier into enemy territory in a plane. In addition, this plane can also act as a cell phone tower for the military's radio system. When it's up in the air, members can communicate via radio when they're miles away from each other.

After the plane took off, we got back into our car and headed over to another training exercise. Members of the guard enjoyed the activity because they fired live ammunition instead of just blanks. Using live ammunition adds a certain element of danger to the training, but many troops also told us it makes the experience more realistic and helped them get ready for real-life situations they will encounter in Afghanistan.

By now, we had all been awake for more than twelve hours. We arrived at a Forward Operating Base that houses lots of eastern Iowa soldiers. Everyone was lined up for dinner. So, we joined them. The military served a slice of pork, a sweet potato, green beans and a cornmeal muffin. Everything tasted great. We were starving.

We spent the next few hours getting our stories together for KCRG-TV9, The Gazette and the internet. We worked in the barracks area surrounded by about 150 soldiers. Everyone has been incredibly friendly and welcoming. Photographer Jim Slosiarek bounced around and captured some photos of everyone winding down at the end of the day. We're planning to get some video tomorrow. It's interesting because some people read books, others use their laptops and some even do push-ups. It all depends on your mood and personality, I guess.

We're gearing up for another intense day at Camp Ripley tomorrow. We've learned to be patient. The military doesn't like to make snap judgments or decisions. Everything must follow a process and a procedure. But, people's lives are on the line. So, no one can really complain.

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