Shipping Out

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 28, 2007

SALEM, Ind. -- Brett and Kurtis Walters played army in the woods as kids. They dueled at video games and spent untold hours debating who was stronger and cooler, Superman or Batman. Years later, they are still giving each other grief. Kurt still favors Batman, and Brett recently proved his allegiance to the Man of Steel by having a stylized "S" tattooed onto his back.

Brothers and best friends who work together and hang together, Brett and Kurt will soon head to Iraq together, soldiers in the same nine-member Indiana National Guard squad. When they contemplate what they will find in the unpredictable dust of Anbar province and how the fight will change them, they talk in the terms of the comic books of their adolescence.

The bad guys can't get him, Brett, 22, told his worried 19-year-old wife, because they have no kryptonite.

"And what if I lose Kurt over there?" Brett asked. "We don't talk about it in a serious manner. It's, 'Dude, if you die, I'm taking all your DVDs.' I told him, 'If you die, I get your truck.' "

As the U.S.-led battle for Iraq's future rumbles toward the five-year mark, the Walters brothers are among the thousands of part-time warriors who will quit their civilian lives and their home towns to spend 10 months in a parallel reality. Four state Guard brigades, among them Indiana's 76th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, will mobilize in early December, the next wave of deployment to support President Bush's plan for keeping at least 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq through next year.

More than 3,400 Indiana soldiers are training now for the war, a conflict more complicated, more unpredictable and less popular than at any time since the March 2003 invasion. When the troops -- farmers and factory workers, students and executives, sons and daughters -- ship out, they and the communities they leave behind will be braced for the worst. "This is a tougher mission," said Col. Courtney Carr, commander of the Indiana brigade. "There's a good chance that not all our soldiers will come back."

To prepare, soldiers are taking leave from work and school to practice convoy security and urban-warfare skills amid the foggy cacophony of mock Iraqi towns complete with minarets and clusters of beseeching citizens. They are studying how to recognize roadside bombs and escape from charred Humvees. And they are learning to fire every weapon in case a squadmate is felled in battle, an acknowledgment that rising casualties create fresh necessities.

Whatever the rest of the country, and their neighbors, think of the worthiness of this war, Indiana's soldiers say they have plenty of motivation -- a mixture of loyalty to their country, devotion to their comrades and determination to succeed.

"When the big game comes," Sgt. 1st Class John Ingle said one day at the Salem armory, "you want to get in there and see if you've got it."

Panic in a Humvee

From behind the doors of a Humvee carcass spinning on a spit, the grunts and curses sound like the muffled audio of a wrestling match. Soldiers in fatigues, upside down and discombobulated, still strapped into their seats, struggle to unharness themselves from the make-believe wreckage of a roadside bomb.

Minutes pass. First two, then four, then six, an eternity in a battlefield emergency. Sgt. Shaun White finally becomes the first to emerge through the only unlocked door. He closes it behind him and moves to take a crouching position against enemy fire.

"Hey, hey, HEY!" shouts Sgt. 1st Class Jesse Sheets, a trainer leading the exercise. "Your buddy's in there!"

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