Florida’s 53rd Infantry prepares for historic deployment

Written by  //  October 21, 2009  //  Feature Stories

More than 2,500 Soldiers hone combat skills at former World War II training site

CAMP BLANDING JOINT TRAINING CENTER, Fla. (Oct. 21, 2009) — Nearly 70 years ago a Soldier training at Camp Blanding carried an M1 rifle with a wooden stock, probably hummed popular tunes by the Andrews Sisters, and faced combat in either war-torn Europe or the remote Pacific.

Today a typical Soldier training at this National Guard post in north-central Florida is shouldering a new M4 carbine with night vision optics and listening to MP3 downloads on his cell phone. And now his destination is the Southwest Asian countries of Iraq, Kuwait or Afghanistan.

Soldiers from the Florida Army National Guard's 2nd Battalion, 124th Infantry Regiment, speak with an actor portraying an Iraqi civilian during training at Camp Blanding Joint Training Center, Oct. 22, 2009. Photo by Tech. Sgt. Thomas Kielbasa

More than 2,500 Soldiers from the Florida Army National Guard’s 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team are participating in six weeks of pre-mobilization training at Camp Blanding Joint Training Center in preparation for service in Iraq and Kuwait early next year.

Camp Blanding was a major U.S. Army training post during the 1940s, and now the Soldiers training there will become part of the largest single unit deployment for the Florida National Guard overseas since World War II.

“It’s a chance to serve your country and lead Soldiers in battle,” said Staff Sgt. Ronald Messer, 29, from Tampa, Fla.

On Oct. 22 Messer led a squad of Soldiers through a typical Infantry drill of reacting to enemy fire in the dense woods of Camp Blanding’s 72,000-acre training area – the same ground once used by Soldiers preparing for World War II.

These 21st Century Soldiers kept their rifles at the ready during a seemingly quiet patrol, but when the “crack-crack” of rifle shots exploded from the nearby foliage the squad hit the ground and opened fire. A few minutes later the firefight was over, and the Florida Guardsmen were critiquing their response.

“It’s going really well,” explained Tampa-resident Sgt. 1st Class Jeremiah Marenda of A Company, 2nd Battalion, 124th Infantry Regiment, as he observed the exercise. “I’ve been pleased with the training and what we’ve been able to accomplish.”

Marenda, 32, offered some pointers to the Soldiers in his platoon after the drill, providing first-hand knowledge of combat techniques he gained during a previous overseas deployment with the Idaho National Guard.

The majority of his Soldiers will provide convoy security while in Iraq. Marenda noted that since some of his platoon do not have Infantry backgrounds it is imperative they see how a typical Infantry squad operates.

As the platoon readied for another combat drill, Staff Sgt. Roger Roache of Palm Bay, Fla., said the diversity of military specialties will benefit the Brigade during the deployment. Roache is a transportation specialist who previously served in Afghanistan with the 53rd.

“The good thing about this mission is that it is a mixture of different specialties and jobs that were put together to form this one group, and everyone is pretty keen on going over there and doing their mission,” Roache, 31, said. “The training that we have here is some of the best that I’ve seen.”

A few hundred yards away another platoon of Florida National Guard Soldiers cautiously walked up to a mock-up of an Iraqi village. The Guard members had already reacted to IED explosions and sniper fire during their simulated patrols that morning, and they were entering a village where they believed an armed attacker was hiding.

Staff Sgt. Larry Boykin, 28, calmly walked up to an Iraqi national playing the part of the village sheik in an attempt to find the attacker. Boykin, a former U.S. Army Ranger who served in Afghanistan, said scenarios like this were instrumental in letting his Soldiers know how to deal with potentially deadly situations and still remain diplomatic during presence patrols.

“We’re out there to be seen and let the people know we’re out there to do some good things,” Boykin said, after the scenario ended.

The combat veteran said one of the most important things he tells his Soldiers is to be prepared for the flexibility and the “ups and downs” of being in a hostile situation.

“It’s a rollercoaster: we’re getting fired at; then we’re not getting fired at,” he explained. “It’s an emotional up and down. You turn it up now, and in five minutes turn it right back down because these are good people and they’re not trying to hurt you.

“That’s one of the things we really press in them, how to deal with that,” Boykin added.

The 53rd Soldiers are scheduled to deploy in early January for additional training at Fort Hood, Texas, before departing for their missions in Southwest Asia.