CAMP BLANDING -- The Florida National Guard troops were wearing full battle rattle inside their Humvee hunting insurgents in rural Afghanistan when suddenly, from a distance, somebody opened up with small-arms fire, wounding an American soldier.
The U.S. troops fired back, mowed down six insurgents, then called in a chopper to evacuate their injured comrade.
“This is what they signed up to do,” said a satisfied Maj. Gen. Emmett R. Titshaw Jr., Florida’s adjutant general.
But the combat did not take place in the hardscrabble landscape of Central Asia. Rather, it took place inside a simulator in a building at this base in the middle of North Florida, a venue that invited a question:
With the Defense Department drawing down forces in Afghanistan, America’s original combat theater in the war on terror, wasn’t the use of this state-of-the-art technology at risk of becoming an anachronism?
“We could do Tampa-St. Pete,” replied Col. John D. Haas, the Guard’s operations chief.
Yes, a programmer could have the simulator serve up a scenario of a hurricane-thwacked street somewhere in Florida to train troops for anything from traffic control and water distribution to patrol against looting and rioting.
And that’s the point, really. After more than a decade of deployments from Iraq to Afghanistan, the nearly 12,000-strong Florida National Guard finds itself in transition.
Combat readiness remains the core mission because some Florida Guard soldiers are still being sent overseas.
About 100 men and women from a Melbourne-based military police unit will ship out for Bagram, Afghanistan, later this month, that unit’s third and, probably, final deployment there. A small military intelligence unit is part of the prison camp staff at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. And the Guard’s 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team plans a summertime exercise that simulates putting troops back overseas into what the Guard’s spokesman, Air Force Lt. Col. James Evans, calls “a hostile environment” for platoon- and company-level training.
But over the weekend, other members of the state’s standby force began their annual hurricane-season training — a week of war games that focus on emergency management.
State and county agencies rehearse how different civilian and military organizations would communicate and divide duties when the next Big One strikes. This year’s catastrophic scenario envisions the state being struck by a hurricane on both coasts.
It has been a busy decade for the Guard, which has deployed to full-time duty more than 17,000 citizen soldiers and airmen from across the state since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, both domestically and abroad.
Eighteen died on deployment to the post-9/11 wars, four in enemy attacks, the rest to illness or accident. Its biggest year was 2010, when roughly 3,100 troops, a third of Florida’s Army National Guard force, were mobilized for different roles from Iraq to Afghanistan.
Now, at Blanding, the Florida National Guard trains for domestic duty that would let Gov. Rick Scott mobilize roughly 9,000 Guard members to handle a stateside emergency such as a hurricane, wildfires or floods.
But such a transition at the Guard is not apparent all at once, says Col. Glenn Sutphin, legislative liaison in Tallahassee, who says that, contrary to common wisdom, the training cycles really won’t change.
“It will be an invisible change. Families won’t see their loved ones go off, nor will they see the tragedy of those wounded come back,” he said by telephone. “We’ll be like we’ve always have: On call as needed.”
And that’s the way it ought to be in the view of Sgt. Anthony Calvi, who at age 24 has already served six years.
The sergeant, a Kendall native, is studying engineering at Florida International University. He joined at age 18 and has been deployed twice — once to a year in Iraq doing convoy security as troops hauled out U.S. equipment to wrap up the American invasion, and another time to Germany to train Georgian troops. This year, he competed for and won the title of the Florida Guard’s Noncommissioned Officer of the Year.
“Our only job is to train, and be ready for both statewide and worldwide incidents,” said Calvi, who argues that after a decade of deployments, “We have a much stronger National Guard now, better prepared and more experienced.”
That’s because successive deployments have contributed to self-selection. Some Floridians who came home from overseas assignments realized that soldiering was not for them, and chose not to re-enlist.
Today, half of the Florida National Guard troops joined after the Sept. 11 attacks that reshaped America’s attitude toward the military and service. Said Titshaw, the state’s adjutant general: “9/11 has created a National Guard now that is so highly combat experienced.” Troops who signed up before Sept. 11, 2001, with an eye toward weekend warrior or hurricane duty have retired or moved on.
Still by some measures it is an uncertain time for the Guard.
Congress and the White House have decided to cut costs through the sequestration, and 993 full-time employees of the Guard will soon start getting one-day-a-week furloughs, or 20 percent pay cuts.
They are Guard members known as technicians, who draw their wages from federal funds in a range of jobs — from mechanics who maintain armored vehicles to public affairs specialists who write articles. While most Guard members are part-timers when not deployed, the nearly 1,000 so-called technicians are full-time federal civil service employees. Most work in northeastern Florida.
More typical are men like Army Sgt. Carlos Obregon.
The 31-year-old Florida International University student aspires to go into law enforcement, and joined the Guard for the camaraderie and the benefits. He gets tuition assistance now, and retirement benefits if he spends 20 years in uniform, training a weekend a month and for two weeks during the summer.
Obregon, who trains in West Palm Beach, has done two tours in Iraq — the first as an enlisted Marine, more recently in 2010 when the Guard was assigned to the convoy security mission.
He left the Marines, he said, “because I wanted to do something new.”
He joined the Guard because “what I really wanted to do was keep serving.”
He has never worked a hurricane, he said, and training is fundamentally “infantry stuff: Battle drills. Shoot, move, communicate, go to the range, qualify.”
That leaves him ready to answer the call, which he said he would welcome either way. Another overseas deployment would let him “change it up. They’re different from being here every day.” A state call-up would be “fine. That’s what I signed up for.”
Once, he was put on standby in case of a riot during a South Florida Super Bowl, but the call never came.
Ready for anything
So, even with the war fronts waning, a March visit to the sprawling, 73,000-acre post at Camp Blanding put the work of the Guard in perspective:
• On a dirt lot, a unit of drivers was doing annual training on flatbed trucks.
Transportation may be a mundane, basic mission of the military, but this unit was training to join a 2,000-troop Command and Control Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear Response Element. In other words, these soldiers train to spend two years on standby in case of a natural disaster or terrorist attack that requires a national response, not state-by-state deployments.
• Mechanics awaiting word on when they would be furloughed one day a week were working on tactical vehicles.
These up-armored trucks and other heavy equipment never went overseas across a decade of deployments, but could be called into service if there were a statewide mission. Other Guard trucks and armor are arrayed across the state, where the Florida National Guard has facilities in 55 communities.
• Elsewhere on the base, the state had 171 teenagers at a boot-camp-style residential program for at-risk teenagers.
Some of them were high school dropouts recommended to the program by school counselors. It’s called the Youth Challenge Academy, and the teens are called cadets. They live in barracks and are drawn from across the state. The program lasts about six months, and receives most of its funding from the federal government.
• At a conference center, Reserve and Guard soldiers being promoted to sergeant were in a classroom learning how to lead troops.
Once, the emphasis was on physical fitness training. For years, Army drills amounted to sit-ups, pushups and a two-mile run. Now the emphasis is also stretching, cross-fitness, combat carries, cardio and weight training to prepare a more combat-ready fighter in the 19-day Warrior Leadership Course.
Then there was the simulation lab.
On this day, no one was actually doing any training. Instead the trainers were working with a private contractor to demonstrate how a squad can drill to be ready for small arms fire in the real world.
Nearby, soldiers in combat gear were packing themselves inside a simulated MRAP, short for a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, the new-millennium tank. The simulator let troops experience the crash and rumble of a rollover without injury — for a promotional video the Guard is producing this year.