CAMP ATTERBURY, Ind. — "Incoming!"
The scream goes up as gunfire snaps furiously from the surrounding woods. An explosion shakes the ground. American troops are under attack.
A squad of Kentucky National Guard soldiers — members of a quick-reaction force assigned to respond in just such a situation — charge forward, dive to the ground and return fire with live rounds, blazing away at the silhouettes of "attackers" looming out of the brush.
As quickly as it started, the shooting stops. No one is hurt; it's all been a drill. Silence returns —- until some more Kentucky Guard members step up to take their turns fending off a simulated attack on a forward operating base.
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Intense training occurs daily at this huge Indiana base as more than 1,300 Kentucky National Guard members from around the state prepare for a historic tour of duty in Iraq. They've been here about a month and will leave the United States in late July after their mobilization training is completed.
The operation could make history in two ways. It will be the largest deployment by the Kentucky National Guard since World War II, and the troops probably will be the last Kentucky Guard members sent to Iraq. The U.S. military is on pace to end operations there and depart the country Dec. 31.
That's good news for the Kentucky soldiers training in Indiana, many of whom have served two, three or more combat tours in Iraq or Afghanistan since Sept. 11, 2001.
Fourteen Kentucky National Guard members have died in Iraq; four more were lost in Afghanistan. Almost 14,000 Kentucky Guard members have been activated since the 2001 terror attacks.
Now, at least in Iraq, an end seems in sight.
"It was like the Wild West the last time I was there in '06-07; I hope it's calmer this time," said Sgt. Brett J. Brock of London, who lost a former schoolmate in another outfit in Iraq. "If we're the last to go, then I'll be glad of it. This thing has been going on a long time."
First Sgt. Jeremy Serdenis of Louisville served during the 2003 invasion of Iraq that took out Saddam Hussein's regime. Serdenis returned in 2008 to help quell Iraqi insurgents. Now, he's prepping for a third tour, what could be the end of America's eight-year struggle in Iraq.
"I really hope we're the last because I don't want to go back," Serdenis said Wednesday after a military lunch of MREs (meals ready to eat). "It's neat for me because I was there when everything first kicked off. I was there in the middle of it, and now I'm going to be there for the end. It's kind of like closing a chapter in my life."
In comparison, Pvt. Tosha Cobler, part of an MP unit from Florence, has never been to Iraq. But Cobler says she's ready to play her part in the last act of the drama.
"Hopefully, we'll be able to stick with the schedule to pull out Dec. 31," she said. "I'm a little nervous, but I'm also excited. A lot of folks in our group have been over there two or three times, so I'm sure their leadership will pull us through."
The Kentucky Guard members training at Camp Atterbury for the upcoming deployment are part of the 149th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, which includes guard contingents from Virginia, Utah and Oregon.
Altogether, more than 2,600 men and women in the four-state brigade, the majority from Kentucky, are going to Iraq. The brigade includes infantry, military police, forward support and other units.
According to Kentucky Guard officials, brigade members will perform multiple tasks in various areas of Iraq, including guarding U.S. bases, screening people entering installations, escorting convoys, patrolling with and training Iraqi units, and helping close the many U.S. camps and outposts built since the March 2003 invasion.
Even if U.S. units leave Iraq as planned Dec. 31, the 149th Brigade might not return home immediately. The troops could be sent to Kuwait or some other Middle East location, according to Capt. Stephen Martin, a Kentucky Guard spokesman.
The soldiers' deployment orders are for one year, Martin said.
Although attacks on American troops in Iraq have declined sharply in recent years, the death toll in June — 15 — was the highest monthly level since June 2008.
But Col. Scott Campbell of Elizabethtown, who commands the 149th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, said the training his soldiers are getting here is designed to prepare them for anything they might face.
"Morale is high; everybody's totally focused," Campbell said last week. "We found out almost two years ago that we would get this mission, so everybody came into it with their eyes wide open."
It has been a long fight. Campbell, who has a civilian job at Fort Knox, says he's been on active duty five out the last 10 years. He notes that many Guard troops headed back to Iraq had chances to opt out but elected to see it through.
"For folks like me, who saw it at the beginning, it's nice to see the end of it," he said. "But guys who've gone two or three times, chances are they did that because they wanted to. They could have retired at some point during all that time. They didn't have to be here, but they wanted to be."