Camp Shelby to host farewell ceremony for Arkansas Guard unit

Published 4:57 pm Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The severe weather that damaged barracks and injured 14 Arkansas National Guard soldiers at a base in Mississippi was like a “final exam” for the troops who will soon ship out to Iraq, a military spokesman said.

Hundreds of members of the Arkansas Guard’s 39th Infantry Brigade Combat Team will be honored with a farewell ceremony Thursday at Camp Shelby in south Mississippi, where the troops have been training since January.

The soldiers put some of that training to use Monday night when powerful wind gusts associated with a violent system of storms damaged their barracks and sent 14 members of the brigade to a hospital for treatment.

The storm ripped the roof off the concrete building about 11 p.m., prompting soldiers in nearby buildings to sprint the aid of their comrades, said Maj. Craig Heathscott, a brigade spokesman.

“Part of the way the soldiers reacted to that, they were reacting on instinct,” Heathscott said. “Part of that came from the training they’ve received at Camp Shelby, part of that came from being combat veterans and part of that came from being concerned about the well-being of their friends.”

The soldiers suffered scrapes and bruises but their injuries were not serious enough to keep them from deploying with the rest of the brigade, Heathscott said.

“The combat lifesavers were doing everything they needed to do to care for the wounded,” he said. “What happened (Monday) night was like the final exam for us. It was the proof in the mix that says our soldiers are ready to go to Iraq and we’re ready to complete this mission.”

A farewell event begins at 3 p.m. Thursday, but the troops aren’t expected to ship out until the middle of March, said Lt. Col. Doril Sanders, a base spokesman.

This will be the second deployment to Iraq for the 39th, which is made up of about 2,800 soldiers. About half the troops are combat veterans, Heathscott said.

The group has been training for two months at Camp Shelby, a huge 136,000-acre base among the pine forests and sloping hills south of Hattiesburg. Once in Iraq, the brigade will provide convoy security and participate in other missions, Sanders said.

The training program at Camp Shelby is known as theater immersion, which the military says prepares soldiers for the sights and sounds they’ll encounter overseas by using Arabic role-players, simulated battlefields and mock Middle Eastern cities.

The military says the training is updated constantly to adapt to situations that arise on the battlefield or strategic changes in the way missions are carried out.

“The training here at Camp Shelby … is absolutely some of the most real training I’ve experienced in my military career,” Heathscott said. “I think our soldiers are ready to get in country and we can start marking those days off the calendar and look forward to 2009 when we come home.”

Camp Shelby is a Mississippi National Guard base, but it was federally mobilized in 2004 and is under the command of the First Army. Guard troops from Alaska to Puerto Rico have passed through its gates on the way to Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We have trained, mobilized, and demobilized more than 67,000 troops since June 2004,” Sanders said.

Three members of Arkansas’ congressional delegation visited the base this past weekend and said they were pleased with the training offered there and the morale of the soldiers.

The last time the 39th mobilized was in October 2003. The brigade spent five months training, splitting the time between Fort Hood in Texas and Fort Polk in Louisiana, Guard officials said. The brigade shipped out in February 2004 and spent a year in Iraq.