FORT IRWIN, Calif. - The next chapter in the brief history of the U.S. Army's Stryker Brigade Combat Team is currently being written in the sands on the Mojave Desert by the Soldiers of 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, as they prepare for their upcoming deployment to Afghanistan.

Representing the final large-scale collective training event before deployment, the current Mission Readiness Exercise at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., allowed the brigade a chance to flex its war-fighting muscles in full-spectrum operations for the first time since it stood up two years ago.

The Tomahawk Soldiers of 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment were at the heart of operations last week as part of the brigade's final assessment.

"We're here to test all of our systems," said 4-23 Inf. commander Lt. Col. Burton Shields. "It's our final chance to rehearse all of our systems to ensure that we are as well trained as we can possibly be."

After an initial week of Reception, Staging, Onward Movement and Integration, the Soldiers of Apache Company, 4-23 Inf. began full-spectrum operations with the rest of the battalion. The approximately 1,000-square-mile expanse of desert known at NTC as "the box" would be their home for 14 days of intense combat training in an environment that closely replicates the terrain of Central and Southwest Asia.

The leaders and Soldiers of 5th Bde., 2nd Inf. Div. learned last week as they launched their first major MRX mission that they would deploy this summer to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

"The box will help the Soldiers prepare for overseas," said A Co. commander Capt. Edward Graham, "as far as being stressed, overwhelmed and tired and still having to be able to engage a local leader and be respectful."

For Soldiers who have not yet deployed, the training at NTC provides the closest experience to the demands of fighting a war.

"It brings you as close as you can to replicating combat, while keeping the soldiers safe," said Graham.

The first major mission of 4-23 Inf.'s rotation accomplished just that.

Traveling 105 miles out of sector to a Taliban-controlled village, the Tomahawks' mission was to secure the area, kill or capture all occupying Taliban and turn the town back to local authorities.

A nighttime movement to the village of Al-Zalaquadari on unimproved dirt roads through an unknown territory presented a unique set of challenges to the Soldiers moving as a battalion to the objective. It proved to be a valuable learning tool for understanding the realities of navigating under conditions the Soldiers will encounter in Afghanistan.

"We were more accustomed to traveling on well-known, paved roads, because we had been training for Iraq," said Shields. In Afghanistan "it's very rural, and you may be traveling long distances on unknown dirt roads in the countryside for significant periods."

Completing an arduous drive to their objective, the Tomahawks arrived at the village near daybreak. The morning sun revealed a complex system of houses, office buildings, roadblocks and a determined force of nearly 50 Taliban armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. To simulate actual battlefield conditions in Afghanistan and add another layer of complexity to the operation, Afghan National Army soldiers and attached interpreters led the initial push into the village.

"We've been learning about the composition and capabilities of the Afghan Army in classes, and in the field here we got an opportunity to put (our training) to test," said Shields.

While the battalion employed native speakers of Afghan languages during the mission, language-enabled Soldiers in each company will use Pashto and Dari instead of Arabic during their upcoming deployment. Splitting into squads, the Soldiers moved meticulously from house to house, clearing the area of all enemy resistance. They eliminated the Taliban fighters and secured key leaders in the town.

Following the assault, the Soldiers began "consequence management" for the village. While repairing and assessing collateral damage and conducting discussions with key leaders from the town, leaders also practiced a "media engagement" with the international news network on the scene.

The scale of the mission also gave 4-23 Inf. Soldiers experience in working with the entire battalion on a larger objective.

"It was a huge objective," said Sgt. Steve Marshall, of 3rd Platoon, A Company. "We had a lot of room to move."

Other Soldiers were impressed with the attention to detail displayed in the village.

"I think it's better than most (Military Operations in Urban Terrain) cities," said Spc. Jeremy Montoya, of 3rd Plt., A Co. "With the obstacles, it's probably pretty realistic for where we're going."

The exercise also gave Apache Company a chance to familiarize its Soldiers with the Land Warrior system in a fully operational environment. The high-tech equipment increased situational awareness by allowing commanders to pinpoint exact locations of Soldiers while at the same time providing real-time information on locations of houses to be cleared and positions of enemy forces to be engaged.

"You've got a lot of chaos on the battlefield," Shields said. "You have civilians running around. My elements will get intermingled, and it gets confusing for the Soldiers. So, hopefully, Land Warrior gives them a better understanding and appreciation of exactly where everyone is placed."

While many 4-23 Inf. Soldiers were still adjusting to the added weight of their battlefield equipment and intricacies of the technology, they did their best to familiarize themselves with the system all the maneuver battalions in the brigade will carry into the upcoming deployment. The 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment in the 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division was the first infantry unit to deploy as a battalion with Land Warrior. The Manchus learned to appreciate its capabilities more as their deployment went on from April 2007 through June 2008.

Despite the additional weight of Land Warrior on the Tomahawk Soldiers, A Co. 1st Plt. Sgt. 1st Class William Powers said he understood the value of the increased situational awareness the system provides.

"If I can't see my (Soldiers)," said Powers, "(I can look) on Land Warrior and know exactly where they are."

"It will take some time to get used to (Land Warrior)," said Graham. "It really hasn't been tested in an environment such as Afghanistan.

"We learned some things about Land Warrior, and now we need to go back and prepare ourselves before we go to combat."

Not only will 5th Bde., 2nd Inf. Div. break ground as the first full brigade to deploy with Land Warrior, but the Destroyers will also make history as the first Stryker brigade to operate in Afghanistan.

"We're excited about it," said Shields. "We think it's an honor to go."

Because of the various limitations posed by the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan, the Stryker Brigade Soldiers have trained to be prepared for any situation.

"We can dismount from our Strykers, road march, tactical march and air assault," said Shields. "We have the capability to go with or without our Strykers."

With a deployment to Afghanistan in their future, the Soldiers of 4-23 Inf. have worked hard to prepare for the fight ahead.

"For infantry Soldiers, they want to be where the fight is," said Graham. "Right now, these Soldiers are focused on Afghanistan and they're ready to go there."

Phil Sussman is a photojournalist for Fort Lewis' Northwest Guardian.