A Tradition Of Preparation
Camp Roberts has a long history of readying soldiers for America's wars.
It opened in 1941 and took its name from Harold Roberts, a San Francisco tanker who gave his life for another soldier in World War I.
More than 800 California National Guard soldiers ended a month of training at the base this week. They're headed to Iraq later this year.
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It gets hot on the 43,000-acre base in the summer, but not quite as scorching as the soldiers expect to find when they arrive in the Middle East.
"You can't compare anything in the world to Iraq heat," said Sgt. Richard Aller, a Sacramentan who serves in the 1st Battalion of the 184th Infantry Regiment.
National Guard soldiers aren't the only ones who use the base. Navy SEALs, Marines and the Army also hold drills there.
Running at full capacity, the base can serve up to 8,000 soldiers on its various shooting ranges and skills courses.
Soldiers sleep in long barracks, full of single beds separated by white curtains. They get full cell phone and wireless Internet access, though pay phones are available. Some of them managed to project videos from YouTube on a movie screen they shared in one of the barracks Tuesday.
The National Guard soldiers at the base last week ate hot meals for breakfast and dinner. They had Meals Ready to Eat for lunch, which typically was in the field.
They wore green fatigues that protected them from the sun. They drank water constantly and couldn't stop sweating.
"This is the 'crawl' phase," Aller said, explaining the soldiers would "walk" at the next part of their training in Wisconsin and "run" when they get to Iraq.
"People can get out of shape and you've got to keep up the tempo, get them prepared right away for what they're going to face," he said.
-- Adam Ashton
She Keeps Up, and Then Some
Rebecca Nava isn't about to let herself fall behind the boys.
The 25-year-old Modestan is one of a handful of women preparing for a mission in Iraq late this year with the 1st Battalion of the 184th Infantry Regiment.
"We keep up," she said. "And we can shoot, too."
Nava's tour will be her first with the National Guard. She joined two years ago, partly with an eye toward helping her finish her bachelor's degree in liberal studies at California State University, Stanislaus, in Turlock.
One of her leaders, Sgt. Paul McKenna, said Nava is a crack shot, scoring 49 out of 50 on one test. Nava hadn't fired a gun until she joined the military.
The nature of the war in Iraq means Nava likely will have to use that skill.
"At some point, every soldier, male or female, is going to be asked to defend the convoy," McKenna said.
-- Adam Ashton
Vet Expects 'Different Feel'
Spc. Jeremy Calgaro has seen more of Iraq than most soldiers in the California National Guard.
The Patterson man served with the 101st Airborne Division on two tours, one in 2003 and another in 2005.
He rolled through most of the country during the war's initial invasion, passing through Basra, Najaf and Mosul. His second tour focused on Tikrit (Saddam Hussein's hometown), north of Baghdad.
Calgaro, 27, expects a different feel when he arrives in Iraq later this year with the 1st Battalion of the 184th Infantry Regiment.
"I guarantee it. It was a different country between (the first two tours)," he said.
Calgaro is one of many veterans advising new soldiers on what they'll find in combat.
"Everyone's experiences are different, so everyone's knowledge is different," he said. "We toss it all in and it makes this big melting pot that we all draw from."
-- Adam Ashton
Guard Being Stretched Too Thin?
Capt. Guillermo Adame says he's grateful he has a patriotic boss.
When he's not in uniform, Adame is a chemist in Ontario.
He's preparing for his second deployment to Iraq in the past three years with the 1st Battalion of the 184th Infantry Regiment, keeping him away from his day job for longer than National Guard members anticipated before the terrorist attacks of
Sept. 11, 2001.
"Luckily, we have a lot of very supportive employers out there," he said.
Veterans for America, a Washington advocacy group, last month released a report urging lawmakers to slow deployments for National Guard units across the country. The organization contends the Guard is being stretched too thin, straining employers and local communities.
That high-level conversation didn't come up with the men and women training at Camp Roberts this month. They were focused on getting ready for what promises to be a challenging year in Iraq.
Some of them liked the improvements they're seeing in the National Guard that accompanied its increased responsibilities, such as better equipment and training.
"It's a totally different Army now," said Spc. John Garcia of Jackson, who left service in the active Army in 2000 but recently joined the National Guard. He's a systems administrator at the Jackson Rancheria casino when he's at home.
-- Adam Ashton