The scariest movie in the Treasure Valley last weekend didn't have vampires. It didn't play at the cineplex or on HBO. It played at the Officers' Club at Boise's Gowen Field.
Hundreds of soldiers watched a terrifying film detailing how anthrax paralyzes the body's white blood cells, invades the brain, and potentially leads to an ugly, painful death. According to the Pentagon's MILFAX website (vaccines.mil), "the unpredictable nature of terrorism makes it prudent to include biological warfare defense in all our force protection planning." Following the early morning film, the Idaho soldiers received the fifth in a series of painful anthrax-immunization shots. A movie and a big needle ... hell of a way to start a Saturday morning.
On June 19, over the course of several hours, members of Idaho's Army National Guard underwent a battery of exams, met with a chaplain and even considered drawing up a last will and testament, all as part of Soldier Readiness Processing in anticipation of their deployment to Iraq this fall.
In mid-September, Idaho Gov. C.L "Butch" Otter will hand over control of the 116th Cavalry Brigade Combat Team of the Guard to the Pentagon. Approximately 1,500 men and women of the 116th will head to Camp Shelby, Miss., for two months of training. Then, they're off to Iraq for about 10 months. Roughly 2,200 Idahoans belong to the 116th, and 1,500 have been identified as candidates for deployment. Not all of them will go.
"We're trying to identify those soldiers who have health problems and we want them 'fixed' before deployment," said Col. Fred Friel, the senior physician assistant in the Medical Detachment of the Idaho Army National Guard. In the run-up to the September deployment, he and his colleagues have conducted a series of periodic health assessments, the latest this past weekend.
"Idaho has a very well run SRP. We've seen the others," said Friel. "We want to get these soldiers in and out as efficiently as possible."
What's the biggest no-no? Bad vision? Nope. Obesity? Think again. It's bad teeth. The Army is looking for what are technically known as dental category threes or fours. Simply put, that means someone who will probably have some kind of dental emergency in the next six months or less. At the time of the last deployment of the Idaho Guard in 2004, somewhere between 5 and 7 percent of the force reported dental problems.
"And that was actually less than the national average of 10 percent," Friel said. "This is a lesson learned."
What's the problem? The same problem with most of the nation: most of us don't have a dental insurance plan and so most of us don't have regular dental check-ups. And if there's a dental problem in a theater of war, "It's a significant distraction," Friel said. "Even if it takes a day or two for a dental procedure, you have to add a couple of days for recovery."
The next biggest pre-deployment challenges: sports injuries and/or arthritis.
During the periodic health assessments at Gowen, soldiers made their way through a maze of rooms. After dental exams, they had their eyes checked, their hearing tested, and for anyone 40 or older, an EKG was required. Female soldiers 30 and younger had a Pap smear and cytology exam—about 5 percent of the battalion will be female. Blood work was checked for sugar and cholesterol levels. Each soldier's DNA was registered. If they were HIV positive, it was a no-go.
Even the bravest of the bunch still cringed when they made their way to the room with all the needles. In addition to the usual immunizations (tetanus, diphtheria), there was an anthrax vaccine, a series of five shots over a year and a half, and annual boosters thereafter. The man with the needles, Maj. Thomas McMahan, said the anthrax shot is a "big one" and it burns—a lot.
"It will start to hurt pretty soon after and it typically hurts for anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks," Barkley said. The anthrax shots have been pre-deployment standard operating procedure since 2004, right about the time the Army also required small pox vaccinations. A soldier can't get a tattoo within a month of a small pox shot, which will be administered at Camp Shelby, Miss. Idaho troops have to wait until just before they're sent overseas because medics don't want soldiers anywhere near their families while the small pox vaccine is still fresh in their bloodstream, risking a possible transmission.
After being poked, prodded and pricked, the soldiers' next stops required a little self examination. In one room, a legal staff was prepared to counsel and even execute a last will and testament. A bit further down the hall was a room to have your soul checked. A military chaplain asked each soldier about his or her spiritual beliefs.
"It's a very humbling experience," said Chaplain Maj. Rob Morris. "I'll see each soldier and make sure we have some kind of record of their religious experience. No preference is an option."
Today's Army recognizes a pretty long list of beliefs and non-beliefs. According to Morris, the number of faiths is in the hundreds and includes Wiccan, Paganism and atheism. The Army's Chaplain Corps is more than two centuries old.
"We're the only entity in the military that has no reporting requirements. They [soldiers] need to feel safe to tell their story," said Morris. Simply put, what a soldier tells a chaplain remains private.
This fall's deployment of the Idaho Army National Guard will be different from the last in 2004. Then, troops were shipped off to Texas for four months of training, and then to Louisiana for three more months before being sent overseas where they spent 10 months in Northern Iraq. More than 2,000 citizen soldiers went that time, making it Idaho's largest deployment in the history of the Idaho Guard. Few Idahoans didn't have a father, a sister or a co-worker away at war.
Come the third week of September, about 1,500 Idahoans will join about 1,200 others to make up the 2010 version of the 116th Cavalry Brigade Combat Team. By then, they'll have plenty more to fear than needles.