CAMP SHELBY, Miss. -- Out of the early morning darkness, the Humvee driver and turret gunner spot barricades and men with weapons.
Pfc. Buck Ayers, of Cornelia, Ga., spins his .50-caliber machine gun forward and points it at the blue-shirted men blocking the convoy's path.
"Tell them we're going through," yells 30-year-old Sgt. Steven Elders, of Chattanooga, from the passenger seat.
As he barks commands, he also listens through a radio handset to voices coming from up and down the 10-truck convoy he's led over muddy trails that lace the south Mississippi training camp.
"We're going through," Pfc. Ayers shouts at the man over the drone of the diesel engine.
The man yells back in Arabic. No one understands what he's saying, but they understand the AK-47 assault rifles that he and two men flanking him hold as the Humvee inches forward.
The man raises the AK-47 to his shoulder, a move echoed by the men on his sides. All aim at the truck. Another blue-shirted man appears from the darkness behind them and drags a barricade to the middle of the road.
They're blocked in.
FINAL STAGES OF TRAINING
The convoy is one of many driving in the Mississippi mud with the Tennessee Army National Guard's 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment. The regiment goes through training exercises in preparation for deployment to Iraq.
The 3,200-member unit, which returns to Iraq in February for its second deployment since 2004, will escort vehicles, supplies and personnel between coalition bases.
Part of the deployment includes soldiers in Troop R, 3rd Squadron with 278th. The unit, formed to beef up manpower numbers for the 278th, is a mix of soldiers who have not deployed previously and volunteers, some now on their third tour.
Most of R Troop's 131 soldiers are from the 1/181st Field Artillery Battalion, based in Chattanooga. The 1/181st deployed to Iraq from 2007 to 2008, covering security for Camp Bucca, a detainee prison in southern Iraq.
In February, R Troop will arrive in Kuwait first and have two weeks to train in the desert with Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles. The vehicles are the Army's answer to repeated improvised explosive device attacks following the 2003 invasion of Iraq. IEDs have claimed hundreds of lives and shredded even up-armored Humvees, forcing the Army to come up with something better.
Nearly every available Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle is being sent overseas, so at Camp Shelby, there are enough of the vehicles to certify drivers but not enough to use during the daily operations, said R Troop commander Capt. Casey Benzel, 38, of Knoxville.
For six days in late January, Troop R conducted its military readiness exercise, kind of a final exam before combat deployments. Tense minutes in training may repeat themselves with serious consequences in the coming months.
AN UNEASY WAIT
The man stands between the Humvee and five separate barricades, blocking the route forward. A long metal arm attached to the Humvee -- an anti-explosive device simulator -- pokes the man's chest each time the truck moves.
As the men point their AK-47s at the Humvee, Pfc. Ayers makes gestures representing drinking water and eating food to see if that's why the men have stopped them. He crouches behind his machine gun, a heavy weapon capable of piercing engine blocks with a single round but loaded with blanks for this training exercise.
The men at the barricades won't let the American convoy pass, but the soldiers have orders to drive forward. After several minutes, as a lot of information passes between Sgt. Elders and the convoy commander back down the line, the commander drives up with a translator and a piece of paper.
Within seconds, the blue-shirted men drag the barricades out of the way and the convoy rolls down the road.
Each day at Camp Shelby began a new but familiar rotation for the soldiers. The troop was divided into three convoy teams, with rotated duties for each.
One team pushed out beyond the main base to the field on a security escort and spent the night at a forward operating base, simulating conditions the troops will see in Iraq, complete with Iraqi police and army checkpoints, IED attacks and mock insurgents firing paintballs at vehicles.
The second team rested at Troop R's headquarters while the third was on standby to respond if the convoy needed backup in a fight.
During such convoys, Army evaluators drove alongside and graded the soldiers' response under fire.
Back at the main base, Capt. Benzel and 1st Sgt. Gregory Cookston, from Chattanooga, tracked each convoy's progress from the tactical operations center. They talked with the regimental headquarters about how each mission went.
Before each trip, the captain has a trip ticket in hand -- a list identifying which soldier is in which vehicle and where weapons and sensitive gear such as radios or night-vision goggles are in the convoy.
As the convoy returned from the field, another would always go out. Throughout the six-day evaluation, the start times get later in the evening, the captain said.
On the first day at camp, they left at sundown, just before 7 p.m. By the last day, the convoys left the main base at 2 a.m.
Within an hour of dealing with the blocking barricades and AK-47s, Pfc. Ayers and Humvee driver Spc. Patrick Thompkins, of Fayetteville, Tenn., spot an IED lying just in front of a bridge the convoy must cross.
The sergeant calls back to the convoy, telling it to halt. As each truck stops, turret guns swing outwards, facing the treeline along the road, alternating left-right between Humvees to cover all angles.
Two trucks back from the front, popping noises echo in the night air, then machine gun fire erupts into the darkness.
"Contact left, contact left," a voice yells over the radio.
Pfc. Ayers grunts, turning his turret to the left.
"Hey, return fire in that direction," Sgt. Elders shouts to the private.
"Brrrpop, brrrpop, brrrpop." The .50-caliber machine guns belches as empty shell casings rain down, clanging inside the metal floor of the Humvee.
"It's at our 7 o'clock," Pfc. Ayers yell between bursts.
Pink paintballs explode against the driver's side of the truck, one covering the rear window.
"Brrrpop, brrrpop, brrrpop." Pfc. Ayers answers with his gun.
"Is he down?" Sgt. Elders asks, still listening to the radio for what is happening behind his Humvee.
"Negative," the private yells.
The firing stops. Sgt. Elders is on the radio, talking with the convoy commander.
"Contact," Pfc. Ayers yells.
"You got positive ID?" Sgt. Elders asks.
"Positive ID," the private said.
"Are they firing at you?" the sergeant asks.
"Yeah they're firing," he answers.
"Engage, engage, engage," Sgt. Elders yells.
"Brrrpop, brrrpop, brrrpop." The machine gun fires.
"Okay, push through," Sgt. Elders yells to his driver.
The truck rolls forward, gains speed and flies by the IED.
"It is an IED," Pfc. Ayers confirms.
The truck rolls past. The whole episode lasts less than three minutes.
"ON YOUR TOES"
Between missions, soldiers sleep, watch movies, read, call, text or e-mail home, argue, laugh and try to stay busy. The morning of a mission means a quick brief on the tasks from the squadron to the convoys that will spend the rest of the day checking weapons, radios, vehicles, other equipment and soldiers' gear.
The step-by-step nature can become routine, but it is that kind of routine that regimental commander Col. Jeffrey Holmes, 48, from Murfreesboro, Tenn., said will keep soldiers alert.
As public attention shifts away from Iraq and security gains along with a pullback of coalition combat troops to bases, violence for troops has lessened but still remains.
In just the last week, three suicide bombings have blasted hotels in Baghdad, killing at least 36. A separate bombing at an Iraqi crime lab killed 22, according to Associated Press reports.
Pfc. Eric Ream, 21, of Chattanooga, is on his first deployment and well aware of the dangers he faces.
"I'm glad I'm going with people who have been before," he said.
The seesawing between quiet and a string of attacks around the country can cause complacency for soldiers.
"That's probably our biggest challenge," Col. Holmes said.
He expects experienced soldiers to keep the unit vigilant during the deployment, which could last a year, he said.
More than half of the soldiers in the 278th already have deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan in the past, the colonel noted.
Some soldiers are happy to face a potentially quiet tour. Others would rather be headed to Afghanistan.
Spc. Darrel Dawson, 20, of Pikeville, Tenn., who is on his first combat deployment, works as a vehicle driver. His father, Sgt. Larry Dawson, deployed with the 1/181st to Iraq in 2007 and shared some advice: A lot of war can be boring.
"I'm hoping just to battle boredom most of the time," Spc. Dawson said.
Spc. Wayne Sullivan has been to the Persian Gulf enough to want a change of scenery. He is a Navy veteran of the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and is on his third tour with the Guard in Iraq.
"I'd rather go to Afghanistan, with Iraq winding down," Spc. Sullivan said. "We need to be in Afghanistan to beef their forces up."
Capt. Benzel deployed with the unit in 2004 as a platoon commander. He said that experience figures closely into his work as troop commander for this tour.
"Is it any less dangerous now? No, it's not," he said. "You've got less IEDs, but you've still got to be on your toes. It just takes one to kill you."
As the unit finishes its training and prepares to pack up before heading to overseas, Capt. Benzel looks back over the last year's preparation.
"Hopefully, we'll learn from our mistakes," he said. "The mistakes that happen here, we don't want to happen in Iraq."
For last 60 days, soldiers of 278th have sharpened their warfighting skills with training in medical, weapons, communications and vehicle tasks. After a formal parade and review the soldiers will have a few days off to take within 150 miles of Camp Shelby with their families before deploying to Iraq.