Nearly 3,000 Iowa National Guard soldiers are training this month in Mississippi. It's part of their preparation for the Iowa Guard's largest deployment since World War II, one that will eventually send those soldiers to Afghanistan. KCRG-TV9 is with soldiers in the Iowa National Guard all this week at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, to show what it takes to train for this historic mission.
KCRG-TV9's Mark Geary's Reporter Notebook: Sunday, August 22nd:
We're back on the Iowa National Guard beat this week. I'm working with Photographer Jim Slosiarek and Videographer Dane Firkus again. We left Cedar Rapids on Saturday morning and drove to Memphis, Tennessee. It was about an eight hour drive.
Saturday night, we got a taste of that famous Tennessee barbecue. Corky's Barbecue is ranked as one of the top barbecue restaurants in the nation. After eating there, I'd have to agree. The food was delicious and the meat literally fell off the bones of the ribs.
We later found out some Iowa National Guard soldiers also stopped for barbecue at a different restaurant on their way to Camp Shelby. Guard leadership called ahead and warned the restaurant. Otherwise, it would have been tough to accommodate more than one hundred hungry soldiers! I guess no one wants to pass up the chance for some amazing barbeque while they're here in the South.
Sunday morning, we finished the rest of the drive to Camp Shelby. It took about five hours to drive from Memphis to just south of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. I'll be sure to write more about this later, but the weather here is unbearably hot. If you think it's warm in Iowa, you haven't seen anything until you set foot in Mississippi. When we opened our car door, a wall of heat slapped us in the face.
Camp Shelby is about twice the size of Camp Ripley, Minnesota. Back in June, you might remember, we traveled to Camp Ripley to shadow the Iowa National Guard as members prepared to deploy to Afghanistan. We didn't get much time today to explore Camp Shelby, but we did notice some differences already. First, like I already said, it's much hotter here. Second, there are a lot more barracks- style buildings here. All of the barracks buildings we've seen are built with cinderblocks and have cement floors. It literally looks like a sea of cinderblock buildings. Each one has a number on the outside...which essentially acts like an address. Without that number, it'd be nearly impossible to distinguish the buildings from each other. Inside the barracks, there are rows of bunk beds along the wall. The center aisle is clear. Some soldiers also have lockers to store their gear and supplies. Here's the best part: they're air-conditioned! Soldiers have told us they are so grateful to have a cool place to sleep at night. Other troops are staying in areas of Camp Shelby that may not be as comfortable. We're going to be staying at some of those other parts during our trip this week. I'll write more about those living conditions when I've seen them for myself.
Tonight, we had our first meal at Camp Shelby. It's nothing compared to Memphis barbeque, but the food wasn't bad, either. The National Guard served up a choice of veal parmesan or sausage, a side of rice and beans, a salad and some southern corn bread.
After dinner, we headed over to a religious service. Chaplain (Captain) Martha Kester is the first female Chaplain in the history of the Iowa National Guard. She led a group of about eighteen soldiers in prayer. The service lasted about a half hour and included communion and a sip of wine. The military forbids any alcohol consumption while soldiers are here at Camp Shelby. Church service is the only exception. Chaplain Kester conducted the service in a room filled with couches, a pool table and a foosball table. Many soldiers had their weapons with them. It was probably one of the most unusual settings for a religious service I've ever seen. No one cared about the surroundings, though. Everyone in the room had their eyes and ears focused on Chaplain Kester.
Chaplain Kester's homily centered on the idea of routine. The military regulates almost every aspect of people's lives at Camp Shelby. There are rules for everything. However, Chaplain Kester told the troops faith should also become part of their routine. She said, "Never forget, God is standing next to you." Chaplain Kester is an energetic woman with a voice that commands attention and respect. You could tell that she genuinely loves what she does and truly cares about the troops. Here's another interesting fact: Chaplain are one of the only members of the National Guard that will deploy without a weapon. However, Chaplain Kester does have an assistant. His job, among other things, is to protect her if she ever gets in harm's way. After the service ended, several soldiers came up to me and said they were so thrilled to have her here throughout the deployment.
Later, we visited the female barracks and spoke to people there about what it's like to serve as a woman in the National Guard. Some told us their families were shocked when they signed up. Others said friends doubted they would make it, too. But, every woman we spoke to was confident in themselves and their decision to join the military. They shared some fascinating perspectives about their role in the overall Afghanistan mission. You'll hear from them in a story later this week.
We will stay up pretty late tonight trying to get as much done as possible while everyone else here sleeps. The lights go out at 10:00 p.m. inside all of the barracks. However, we're in a special room right now so we can continue to work. Tomorrow, we have a 5:00 a.m. wake-up call. No one's looking forward to it, but we've been through this before. It's hard to complain about anything as trivial as an early wake-up time when you're surrounded by thousands of men and women who have given and will continue to give so much of themselves for their country.