Sgt. David Jones barely restrained himself from rolling his eyes and muttering "sheesh." He was my instructor on the firing range at Fort Stewart last week. I had just emptied the 20-round magazine of an M-4 rifle -- the weapon a foot soldier uses -- and was thrilled with my five target hits. Exhilarated, I leaped up and toppled the rifle sideways off its tripod.
As a participant in the first "Marne Muster -- Soldier for a Day" at Fort Stewart, I was one of 17 area citizens treated to a hands-on experience of how a 3rd Infantry Division soldier trains for combat.
After a short briefing, our hosts, Commanding General Mike Murray and his Chief of Staff Colonel J.T. Thompson, hustled us onto three Black Hawk helicopters for an aerial tour of the installation
A few minutes later we touched down at the firing range, and things got interesting. Abrams tanks and Bradleys boomed projectiles downrange, demolishing enemy targets in an explosion of dirt and smoke. Flames shot from the barrels as they fired, followed by staccato bursts of machine guns mounted on the vehicles.
We watched the show from a nearby tower where soldiers handed us ear protection and pointed out the moving targets to our untrained eyes.
Then, in an act of faith, they put the M-4 rifles into our hands. Soldiers sat inches from our elbows as we fired live rounds. Tammie, wife of Georgia Southern University president Brooks Keel, dropped an enemy combatant at 100 yards. "Beginner's luck," she shrugged.
Back aboard the Black Hawks, we landed near a display of tanks, Bradleys, howitzers, and humvees. The crewmembers of each vehicle explained how they operate in combat. Then they let us inside.
The complexity of the high-tech fighting vehicles is reduced to a fluid ease in the hands of the tightly linked crew. There is no room for extraneous movement inside, just a perfect configuration of personnel and machine. The effect is lethal.
The Paladin howitzer, a cannon that can hit a target 18 miles away -- 22 if they use an Excalibur shell -- boasts an accuracy radius of three meters. High-angle shots for distant targets arc up to 45,000 feet. Yes, 45,000, not 4500.
"We can drop a round vertically into a building and destroy it without disturbing the surrounding structures," a crewman told us.
As for the fully outfitted Infantrymen on hand, try to imagine fighting in the blazing heat wearing equipment that weighs 70 lbs. Throw sustainment load onto that and our foot soldiers are carrying 120 lbs. The last 100 yards in battle belong to these brave men.
Wouldn't you hate to square off with our country in combat?
I was surprised to learn that thanks to the 11,300-foot runway at Hunter Army Airfield, the ports in Jacksonville, Brunswick, Savannah and Charleston, and the stellar interstate and rail connections in our area, Fort Stewart can deploy more soldiers faster than anywhere else save Fort Bragg, N.C. Within 30 days the whole 28,000-troop division can be anywhere in the world, quartered, equipped and ready to fight.
When we lunched at the new 4th Brigade dining facility, I sat next to Specialist Sabrina Hollis, a petite, dark-haired woman from Louisiana. She graduated from college with a degree in criminal justice.
"I wanted to be a detective," she said, but jobs were hard to come by. Uncle Sam put her to work in "human intelligence." She loves it.
With our stomachs full of herbed chicken and banana pudding, we headed for the Medical Simulations Training Center. Bill Cathcart, recently retired WTOC-TV exec, teamed up with me to stanch the blood pumping from the leg stumps of a double amputee dummy. As instructed, I tightened the tourniquet until the spurting stopped. But something was wrong -- I was too clean after this procedure. When I put my hands in the blood and splattered some on my shirt, Bill asked for a new partner.
Our last stop was Warriors Walk, the memorial commemorating the sacrifice of every 3rd Infantry Division soldier killed in combat since 9/11. It was a fitting end to the day, a reminder that war is ugly and tragic. But until humankind abandons mutual slaughter to settle differences, it pays to have the most highly trained, well-equipped military on the planet, staffed by troops vibrant with pride.
Army Strong? Count on it.
Carol Megathlin, formerly of Americus, is a Georgia writer who now lives in Savannah.
CUTLINE INFO: Mary Warnell, mayor of Pembroke, Ga., takes aim with an M-4. (Photo credit: Carol Megathlin)