PINELLAS PARK — The Florida National Guard opened training this month for the 2,500 troops in a Pinellas County-based unit that will be sent to Iraq and Kuwait in January in the largest overseas deployment for the Florida Guard since World War II.
Troops in the 53rd Infantry Brigade, headquartered in Pinellas Park, began training at the Camp Blanding Joint Training Center near Jacksonville earlier this month.
The brigade is the first in the Florida Guard undergoing a revamped pre-deployment regimen that allows troops to spend more time training in Florida, cutting training time at bases outside Florida by as much as six weeks.
The Florida Guard's commanding general, Doug Burnett, said units around the nation are working to increase morale for their citizen soldiers by keeping them closer to home.
Troops are available for family emergencies and might have more contact with loved ones. For example, the Guard is considering a "Family Day" sometime later this month. And leaders say the troops also are available longer in Florida for any domestic emergency that may arise such as a hurricane.
Burnett said training in Florida also saves millions in costs, including travel. The Army and National Guard Bureau have provided the state with extra funds for training. But the Florida Guard could not immediately provide figures or exactly calculate savings.
The Army has been reluctant to cede training to the National Guard, Burnett said, fearing its standards might not be met.
"It was a definite stumbling block," he said. "The Army didn't trust the National Guard to do the training. But we've shown them we can be trusted and relied on. This is the logical next step."
An Army spokesman and the National Guard Bureau did not return calls for comment. The St. Petersburg Times asked the Florida Guard to speak to several soldiers undergoing training at Blanding. But interviews could not be arranged by Saturday.
Burnett said such a large deployment still leaves the state with more than enough troops in Florida to handle any natural disaster, noting the Florida Guard and the Florida Air National Guard's total strength is about 12,000.
National Guard units around the nation have been stressed by repeated deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003. But Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has made it a priority to lessen those demands.
Guard units now spend a year total either training or in time overseas. Previously, units were kept overseas for a year in addition to training time in the states. That meant some troops might be activated for more than 15 months, said Lt. Col. Ron Tittle, a Florida Guard spokesman.
"That created some real challenges for us," he said.
The largest previous deployment for the Florida Guard was 1,800 men in 2003, when units were sent to Jordan, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Florida Guard said 1,000 of the 53rd's troops will be assigned to Iraq guarding the border with Kuwait. Another 300 will be based in Kuwait. The remaining 1,200 will divide their time between both countries guarding convoys.
The 53rd Infantry Brigade draws on troops from around the state, including the Tampa Bay area, Miami, Orlando and Panama City.
Most troops from the 53rd will spend four weeks this month training at Blanding. Two additional weeks training were held earlier in the year. After they are finished at Blanding, troops will spend another three to four weeks at Fort Hood in Texas, or up to six weeks less time than before.
"They're focusing on combat skills now," said Tittle, noting troops will undergo more advanced training in tactics at Fort Hood.
At Blanding, troops can train in a replica Iraqi village. And the Florida Guard has even hired expatriate Iraqis who are now U.S. citizens. They dress in Iraqi garb and speak in Arabic while troops train.
"They act as mayors," Burnett said. "Or they act like mullahs. The guys will come in and negotiate with them or ask for cooperation searching a building or for (improvised explosive devices). So the troops are getting the real deal.
"It's total immersion," Burnett said.
William R. Levesque can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3432.