CAMP RIPLEY, Minn. - We arrived at Camp Ripley, Minnesota around 5:00 Sunday afternoon. Major Mike Wunn from the Iowa National Guard met us at the gate and helped get everyone checked in and ready for our stay. I'm here with two Photojournalists: Dane Firkus and Jim Slosiarek. The three of us will spend several days embedded with Iowa National Guard soldiers.
After we got our body armor and helmets, Major Wunn escorted us to an area where soldiers were playing a game of football to help blow off some steam on a Sunday afternoon. Most people around here wake up around 5:00 or 6:00 a.m. They train all day long. However, at the end of the day, we've found a lot of soldiers still have plenty of energy. We met a solider named Private Jeff Harless from Waterloo at the football game. He's not going to Afghanistan like many other Iowans here. Instead, he's here to help train his comrades for situations and scenarios they'll encounter abroad.
Next, we visited a Central Command area known as the Tactical Operations Center or TOC surrounded by strings of barbed wire. Inside, a series of tents housed key computer and electronic equipment. The tents were air-conditioned to protect the electronics. Soldiers also enjoyed keeping cool. Security here was tight. Every room we entered required special security clearance. This area essentially serves as the "brain" for the Camp Ripley training experience. Soldiers who work there monitor everything that goes on throughout the day. It's their job to keep track of everyone and make sure no one disappears off the radar. Once in Afghanistan, the National Guard will setup a similar facility. It's a critical job that requires constant attention. We met Staff Sergeant Shaun Swiser from Cedar Rapids while we were there. He's already been to Iraq and Kuwait. Afghanistan will be his third tour in the Middle East. Not to mention, he just got married in May. He told us it was tough to leave his new bride one month after the wedding, but he feels lucky to have a strong support system waiting for him back at home.
Next, we headed over to a barracks area. Soldiers all sleep in pretty close quarters. Everyone gets to know each other really well and almost become a second family. While here, we spoke to Specialist Eli Shultz of Cedar Rapids. The former Marine has been in the military for the past six years and has already been to Iraq. Military tradition runs deep in his family. His father was also a Marine. Shultz also told us he's in charge of giving people nicknames. It's basically a rite of passage. He's even got a nickname himself: Jaws. Another guy we met, Private Jakub Schmitz of Cedar Rapids, just recently got married like Staff Sergeant Swiser. Schmitz also has a baby on the way. Specialist Kyle Graber of Kalona is also staying in the same barracks. He's never been deployed to the Middle East, but says he's looking forward to serving his country. The September 11th attacks inspired him to enlist.
We've got a full day ahead of us at Camp Ripley tomorrow. We will wake up around 5:30 a.m. tomorrow. We'll witness some real-life training exercises as these men and women prepare to deploy later this year. I'll tell you more about that tomorrow.