Sunday, February 8, 2004

Public affairs soldiers learn combat skills

Those might come in handy during yearlong deployment to Iraq

The Associated Press

DAYTON, Ohio - The members of the 196th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment of the Ohio National Guard will be deployed to Iraq armed with more than just notebooks and cameras.

The soldiers spent a month at Camp Atterbury, Ind., learning basic combat and survival skills to help keep them safe during their yearlong mission.

"An RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) can't tell the difference between an infantry soldier and a public affairs soldier," said Spc. William Smith of Felicity.

Smith, 27, a communications major at the University of Cincinnati, recently drove a Humvee during a training drill.

As he looked to his left for possible attacks from Iraqi insurgents, shots rang out and a bomb exploded. Thick black smoke billowed over the lead vehicle.

Three soldiers "died" during the convoy attack simulation.

"It was frightening," Smith said. "I felt a cold chill. It was all too realistic. I thought about how often we will be on convoys."

The Columbus-based unit, made up of soldiers from Ohio and West Virginia, will be responsible for escorting civilian media, coordinating press conferences and producing a weekly newspaper for troops in the field. It was scheduled to be deployed on Saturday.

But they also will have to dodge bullets and carry M-16 rifles. If attacked, they are expected to defend themselves and others.

The soldiers of the 196th learned basic first aid and land navigation at Camp Atterbury. They were taught how to identify unexploded artillery, avoid improvised explosive devices and clear mine fields.

One instructor said Iraqi insurgents can implant bombs in trash, then detonate them when soldiers are nearby. Another instructor said insurgents sometimes put hand grenades on dogs, because they know that Americans like dogs.

The unit's commander, Maj. Neal O'Brien of Columbus, is a former infantry company commander going on his second deployment in three years.

He said his primary concern isn't his own safety.

"I'm more concerned about how people will react once the bullets start flying," said O'Brien, 40.

"The main goal is that everybody come home safely, and that we support the soldiers of the 1st Infantry Division and make our families, Ohio and the Army proud."

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