CAMP SHELBY, Miss. - Walking through the war-torn Afghan village of Ghazni, the senses get a workout.
Music drones from the mosque, a lovely, almost hypnotic melody that's somehow eerie, too. The sun beats down mercilessly, burning skin, as dust fills the nostrils, cakes on clothes and sticks to sweat.
The streets are lined with bombed-out cars and graffiti-laden buildings. The graffiti is in Arabic, mostly, save for the messages aimed at foreign forces. "Go home USA," one reads.
Villagers greet visitors by yelling and shoving flip flops and fruit in their faces, hoping to make a sale.
Walk around a van, a corner, and you're confronted by soldiers lying belly down, rifles aimed and ready. It's enough to make the heart skip a beat or two.
Suddenly, an explosion, white smoke, and everyone starts running, yelling.
A suicide bomber. Villagers and soldiers lie wounded, blood streaming from arms and stomachs and heads. More yelling, lots of running. It is chaos.
But it is controlled chaos. It is training for the Georgia Army National Guard's 48th Brigade, soon to deploy to Afghanistan.
It seems real enough. And that's the point.
"We want to expose them to as many different scenarios and outcomes as possible," said Lt. Col. Matthew D. Smith, looking on as the drama unfolded in a replica village built at Camp Shelby, Miss., where the soldiers are undergoing their final days of training.
Today is Friday, and members of the media have been invited to observe.
But none of this is staged for their benefit, they are told. This is the training that soldiers are going through daily to prepare them for what they'll face when they get to Afghanistan.
"This is about as complicated as it gets. They get into a moral and ethical dilemma, as well. If there are U.S. and Afghan casualties, who do you take care of first? This is definitely graduate-level work," Brig. Gen. Larry Dudney said.
The scenarios that play out here are taken from real-life stories told by troops who have experienced them first-hand.
Villagers are played by actual Afghan nationals or by soldiers in costume.
The soldiers never know what they'll be facing when they come here and the action that takes place is largely dependent on them.
"It all plays out depending on their actions in the village. If they're heavy-handed, the villagers become more hostile," Smith said
On the other hand, if they react how they've been taught, everything runs smoother, he said.
Spec. Michael Goines of Conyers said the training is good hands-on experience.
"I think it relates to what we will see once we get (to Afghanistan). I think it will be preparation for us for what's going to happen," he said.
Members of the 48th Brigade, including soldiers from Company B 1/121st Infantry based at the Covington Armory, have been at Camp Shelby for about a month. The largest state-owned training site in the nation, it encompasses 136,000 acres in southern Mississippi. It's affectionately - or possibly not so affectionately - called Mud City or Swamp City by soldiers. One said it rains there days and days at a time.
Another said he can't get used to the heat. He'd better, his buddy tells him. It gets up to 120 degrees where they're going.
They've had no time off since coming here, and most say they're just ready to get going. They'll get a four-day pass to go home in June, and then they'll deploy, about three weeks from now. They won't return until around spring of 2010.
Their mission will be to train and mentor Afghan National Security Forces, including the Afghan army and police force.
The training for that mission is two-fold: They must be ready to face danger and fight, and they must also learn to bridge the language and cultural barriers to relate to the Afghan people. Training is 12 to 16 hours a day, and they get "harassed" at night by music coming from the mosque or mortars firing in the fake village, said 1st Lt. Shiloh Crane.
Before a live-fire exercise in which soldiers will practice entering and clearing buildings and meeting resistance from the enemy, civilians who will be watching are strapped into 30 pound bullet proof vests and helmets.
The weight makes it harder to walk, harder to breathe.
"Imagine doing 18-hour days in this," a soldier says. But that's just part of what they carry. Infantrymen have to lug an additional 60 to 80 pounds.
In addition to their time in the field, the soldiers are also taking language classes and brushing up on culture, learning everything from how to shake hands - no glove, right hand only - to good manners - always accept anything the villagers offer, no matter how bad it tastes.
For Private Austin Lemieux of Griffin, all the work is worth it, because it means he'll get to make a difference.
"Ever since I was a little, that's all I wanted, was to be a soldier. Going overseas is not only about combat. It's about getting a chance to help people who don't have the same advantages we have in the United States," he said.
Specialist David Miles of Covington will be part of the Embedded Training Team mentoring the Afghan police force.
"I think everybody is well-prepared and well-trained," he said, adding the toughest part of the job is being away from family. Miles said it's still not clear how often the soldiers will have contact with their loved ones, but they're hoping for adequate cell phone and internet capabilities.
With the uncertainty of future contact with loved ones looming, Spc. Seth Callaway of McDonough is looking forward to his upcoming time off.
"I'm ready to get the four days going," said Callaway, who will travel to New Orleans with his two brothers, who are also deploying, to spend time with family.
Asked what they'd like to tell the people back home, the soldiers didn't talk about their own hard work and sacrifice. Instead, they focused on the ones they love, the ones who love them.
"I would like to say the deployment is not going to be that bad," said Goines, the soldier from Conyers. "We're going to be home sooner than you all think. We're going to miss you all."
Crystal Tatum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.