JACKSON, Miss. – After spending the summer getting used to sweltering temperatures, hundreds of Alaskan soldiers are getting ready to head to Iraq in that state's largest deployment of National Guard troops since World War II.
Camp Shelby was to host a send off bash Tuesday for nearly 600 soldiers from the 3rd Battalion, 297th Infantry, representing 81 different communities and more than a half dozen cultures — Eskimos, Tlingits, Haidas, Aleuts, Athabascans and others.
"It's fascinating watching this group come together and get ready to go to war," said Gen. Craig E. Campbell, adjutant general of the Alaska National Guard.
Most of the Alaskan soldiers will be given a week of leave after the ceremony to visit with family and friends before heading to Kuwait and then Iraq. They've been training for three months.
Camp Shelby, a massive 136,000-acre base cut out of the rolling hills and pine forests just south of Hattiesburg, is one of several posts that integrate intelligence on tactics currently used in Iraq into training techniques.
The soldiers have spent much of their time in "theater immersion" training, which uses Arabic role players and mock Middle Eastern communities to simulate what the troops will encounter in hot spots overseas.
Lt. Col. Duff Mitchell, battalion commander, said the hot summer conditions the soldiers have endured in south Mississippi helped prepare them for the scorching heat they will face in Iraq.
"The physical and mental demands placed on our soldiers during training were at times stressful," Mitchell said. "But they persevered and are now ready to perform their duties professionally. Alaskans can be proud of their soldiers."
Other soldiers from Alaska currently in Iraq include members of the Fort Wainwright-based 172nd Stryker Brigade, whose deployment was recently extended four more months.
Officials said the 297th is the only activated Army unit with a Native American language motto: Yuh Yek, which means, "Be on watch. Ready to fire."
The 297th will provide security for coalition forces in Iraq, according to a statement from Camp Shelby spokesman Lt. Col. Doril Sanders.
"Our duties include convoy security, control point searches of vehicles and people, and security for Forward Operating Bases," Mitchell said.