Ill. Nat'l Guardsmen prepare for deployment

PEORIA, Ill. Most are headed to Afghanistan next month.

Illinois National Guardsmen and Airmen are being deployed overseas in numbers we haven't seen since World War II. They are going to global hot spots. And for many, the journey involves airlifts. One particular plane, a C-130, was headed from Peoria, Illinois, to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. And in North Carolina, that is where Illinois' citizen soldiers were training and getting ready to serve in Afghanistan.

"Your training does kick in, without you ever really knowing it," said Sgt. James Stroh, Ill. National Guard, Beach Park.

"Buildings are full of bullet holes. The people are very poor. The people deserve a chance, but they're not going to get a chance until the security situation is improved and that's where we come in," said Brigade Commander Scott Thoele, 33rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team

That is their mission - securing Afghanistan, a hotbed of insurgent activity. More than 2,700 Illinois guardsmen will soon be stationed throughout the country, training and mentoring Afghanistan's army and police force.

"It is a huge mission," Thoele said.

So, to prepare, they're building bonds.

"Once you put on this uniform, it's like, 'You cover my back, I'll cover you. We are going to make it home together,'" said Specialist Shannan Crawford of Chicago.

The training is intense and realistic. There are live-fire exercises. In Afghanistan, there are military outposts, and the soldiers are learning how to protect them, should they be attacked.

"I tell people, 'Make good decisions, look after one another,'" Thoele said.

Even during training, they deal with the reality of being injured or killed. In fact, three soldiers from the 33rd Infantry Brigade already have been killed in action. Specialist Joshua Harris, Sgt. Jason Vazquez and Sgt. Kevin Grieco were all killed in Afghanistan.

The soldiers say they understand the possibilities.

"I don't want to die, yeah, but I know what I signed up for. As I said, we're trained well enough to know how to come back alive. And, of course, when it's time, it's time," said 1st Lt. Muhammed Sulaimon, Chicago.

So for now, they say they are ready to go, leaving behind their jobs, families and loved ones.

"Doing the job, doing the mission - that's easy. It's just another job - there's stress involved like any job. Leaving your family, that's the hardest part," said Capt. Jason Humke of Round Lake. "We've had a lot of good training, a lot of preparation for it. Now, we're anxious to go and do our jobs."

Those jobs are a world away. They'll be in Afghanistan in early December.

Among these citizen soldiers, there is a common theme. They are anxious to get to Afghanistan, accomplish their mission and then return home to Illinois to be with family and friends. They hope to do so on time, as scheduled, in about 10 months.

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