I was riding in the back passenger seat with the windows open. The desert air was cooled by intermittent thunderstorms. The bumpy dirt road leading into Fallujah was sprinkled with an occasional vendor selling snacks from coolers.
Just as we entered the Iraqi town, a large tree branch fell in the road, stopping our convoy. Several robed civilians strutted in front of our vehicle.
I was expecting something like this. I thought I was ready.
But I was not.
Before I knew it, there were flashes on my right and the popping of semi-automatic weapons aimed directly at me from the side of the road.
The four of us barreled out of our doors - me, straight into gunfire.
In my heart, I knew I was dead.
Thank goodness they were blanks. Thank goodness the attack on my military convoy was only pretend - an elaborate simulation, part of a training exercise deep in the rambling woods of Augusta's Fort Gordon.
ONE OF A DOZEN or so civilians invited last Monday to spend a day as a soldier in the "Augusta in Army Boots" program, I was outfitted with full military gear (it's incredibly cumbersome and hot) and an M16-A2 (intimidating even with blanks), and I was made to feel as if I had been deployed to Iraq.
Our incessantly kind hosts at the 93rd Signal Brigade told us to have fun. And they sincerely meant it.
Certainly it was indescribably exhilarating - only a few moments into the fighting, I was itching to get into the thick of it. I'd even taken one of the real soldiers up on his offer to spread war paint on my face. Alas, I'd been ordered to dig in as a sentry. While my fellow troops rushed off into the woods to tackle the unknown, I was assigned to hold a tree - which I did with a ferocity the forest animals will not soon forget.
I AM RELUCTANT to say it was "fun," however. Some things, even if adventuresome and intoxicating, are simply too weighty to be fun. And the training that goes on every day at Fort Gordon is as grave as it gets. You have to get it right here, or people die in the field. If you don't get it down just right under mock circumstances in the forests of Georgia, how in the world will you do it under real fire in a hostile land?
The folks at Fort Gordon get it right.
The 93rd Signal Brigade's main mission, for instance, is to establish communications - which these days includes Internet service and encrypted e-mails - under the most trying of conditions.
This was just Georgia - on a secure military facility. Still, I was amazed at what the 93rd was accomplishing in the back woods of Fort Gordon: Under a deluge of rain and constant lightning strikes Monday, there were tents with all manner of communications equipment running right on, including one tent with a big-screen projected image of live CNN coverage of Iraq.
IMAGINE TRYING that feat yourself. Imagine setting up your home office in your back yard. And your kitchen, bathroom and bedroom, too - for all these small comforts are quite necessary for soldiers living in the field. Further, imagine setting all this up while your neighbors are throwing rocks at you (picturing this will be easier for some of you than others).
This is what the 93rd does - only dodging occasional bullets from terrorists, not rocks from neighbors. The brigade's 63rd Signal Battalion recently returned from a year in Iraq; its 67th Signal Battalion has taken its place there.
These guys and gals - especially my highly professional but disarmingly personable "battle buddy," Capt. Carlos Fernandez - had my respect from the get-go. Especially when, as a class of military buffoons, my fellow civilians and I took three hours to suit up!
But after spending a soggy day with Capt. Fernandez and his company, I was truly humbled as never before.
FOR ONE THING, I realized how much work and professionalism and detail goes into merely practicing being a soldier. It's mind-boggling, let me tell you.
For another thing, I realized that even with all that training, it's darn difficult to prepare yourself mentally for being shot at, particularly by insurgent terrorists hiding behind women and children and innocent civilians.
Moreover, the significance of what I'd just experienced was thrust upon me when our class was "graduated" Tuesday morning with unwarranted (but deeply appreciated) fuss by Maj. Gen. Janet Hicks and 93rd Signal Brigade Commander Col. Nathan Smith.
As I changed into my civilian suit and left the base for work, I knew I had left some of my best friends behind. Men and women I hardly know, to be sure, but who toil every day in all manner of circumstances to make sure my family is safe and that I can drive to work without fear. And without really getting shot at.
What more could you possibly ask of your friends?
(Editor's note: The writer is editorial page editor of The Augusta Chronicle.)