The last time an infantry company of the Maryland Army National Guard was mobilized for combat duty was 60 years ago for the D-Day invasion.
Now, about 130 members of the 1st Battalion, 115th Infantry Regiment's Bravo Company have been called up for duty in Iraq - a move that reflects the military's desperate need for combat soldiers.
"It's obvious that the Army is too small," said Jack Tilly, who retired in June as the sergeant major of the Army, or its most senior enlisted solider. "Right now you're having people going over as many as three times."
The Bravo Company infantrymen will leave their homes in early January for Fort Stewart, Ga., where they will complete about three months of training.
Next they'll be tested for battle readiness at the Army's National Training Center in Fort Irwin, Calif.
By June, they will be, as the military says, heading "into theater" as part of a major rotation of troops.
While Tilly said he worried about the impact of the deployments on the Guard's ability to recruit new members, he doesn't see the call-up of Bravo Company as an especially ominous sign.
"It's just another indication that we have to use the National Guard and Reserve when we go to war."
What worries him more, Tilly said, are the stresses placed on family members and the catastrophic consequences of injuries in Iraq.
The company's members, part of the Maryland Army National Guard's storied 115th Infantry Regiment, spent a year on federal active duty after Sept. 11, 2001, standing at their security posts on bases in Maryland and Virginia.
But most of these light-armored foot soldiers, the backbone of the Army's ground forces, have never before fought in a war zone.
Seventeen brigades and three division headquarters now in Iraq will leave between the middle of next year and 2006.
Those 138,000 troops will be replaced with fresh soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen.
In Maryland, neither the size nor scope of the deployment is extraordinary. The Maryland Army National Guard has called up almost 150 soldiers to serve in Iraq since August.
`Good at what we do'
Still, the boys of Company B - infantrymen are always male - appeared nervous but enthusiastic last week as they trained at their armory in Olney.
It's a compound they have occupied since the mid-1980s, now hemmed in by large homes that have cropped up in Montgomery County's horse country.
"We're very good at what we do," said Capt. Brian Borakove, 30, Bravo Company's commander who wears an expert-rifleman's badge but not yet a combat badge.
Trained to fight and move on foot, these infantrymen are taking a test to get something they never needed before - driver's licenses to operate Humvees.
"It's the nature of the fight over there," Borakove, of Arlington, Va., said of the desert expanses they might have to cross.
They are construction laborers and attorneys, students and teachers. From ages 18 to 49, the eldest is 1st Sgt. Donald Connolly, the unit's senior enlisted soldier and father to one of the men in the company.
"The soldiers would obviously like to spend all of their time with their loved ones before they go," Connolly said. "But the mood here is really looking forward to doing a good job with the mission we've been presented."
About a third to a half of the men have previous active-duty experience. Few have seen actual combat.
To allay fear and answer questions, the company will hold a "family day" today at the armory. More than 250 are expected to attend.
"She's not happy," James Butler, 26, of Cumberland said when asked what his pregnant girlfriend thought of his wartime duty.
Honored to take part
Despite the concerns over safety, several deploying soldiers said they were honored to be a part of history stretching back to Colonial times.
"Some people said that we've always acted too much like we're regular army," said Staff Sgt. Robert Zimmermann, 40, of Rockville. "To us, that's a point of pride."
The company's members will have less than six months of full-time training to prepare for the Iraqi deployment.
Their predecessors in the 115th, which last activated a company in 1941, had more than 2 1/2 years to train before they joined the huge Allied force under the 29th Division invading France on D-Day in June 1944.
No matter, according to one historian.
"When the 115th came ashore, all of the preparation in the world couldn't have prepared them for what was about to happen," said Baltimore-based historian Joseph Balkoski, author of the books Beyond the Beachhead: The 29th Division in Normandy and Omaha Beach.
He added: "The U.S. military preparation in World War II was abysmal. ... Soldiers going into Iraq are so much better armed and equipped."
Training with toys
World War II troops "were training with toy guns and cars that had signs on them that said `tanks.' They didn't have enough uniforms, so they had to borrow Civilian Conservation Corps ones," he said.
Raymond Moon, 80, knows this well. He was awarded three Purple Hearts, two Bronze Stars and a Silver Star during World War II.
He landed with the 2nd Battalion of the 116th Infantry on D-Day but later met up with B Company of the 115th.
"I was in the front when they dropped the ramp," he said of approaching the coastline of Normandy inside a amphibious landing craft.
"I went out charging like a bull."
Immediately proceeding, he said, to sink into the deep water.
"I was carrying 70, 80 pounds," said the retired Army major who lives in Winter Park, Fla. "So I knew I couldn't keep all that gear on."
Luckily, Moon said, he had bought a .45-caliber pistol from another soldier before the invasion. It hung around his neck from a lanyard when he finally made it ashore under fire and without his rifle.
"So that's what I'd tell those guys going to Iraq," he said. "Go get yourself a pistol."