FORT BENNING, Ga. - I can remember how miserable I was at the National Training Center, Fort Irwin Calif., as the cold winter of January 2007 did everything it could to paralyze me. No matter how many layers of clothes I put on, how long I tried to stand by the portable heaters or how many times I told myself to "Soldier up", I didn't feel any better about the below zero temperature. Still, I knew that NTC was my step before I deployed to Iraq and I wanted to make sure I was ready.

NTC wasn't just another training event. For me, it was the moment I realized that I was actually going to war. A deployment wasn't a far-off concept that would happen down the road. There would be no more "If you were in Iraq," speeches during training.

At NTC, my leaders were saying things like "Next month, when we are in Iraq" and "During our deployment," to describe things. We were told not to worry about unpacking when we returned from California. The prospect of deploying wasn't a prospect at that point; it was a reality.

I don't know why it didn't dawn on me before then, but as a year away from home stared me in the face, I'll admit I was apprehensive.

At first, I doubted myself and what I knew. Could I treat a casualty if he was actually hurt' Would I be able to pull the trigger if I was called upon to do so' How would I handle being away from my family that long'

Question after question just kept rolling through my head making me more unsure of myself with each passing day.

The amount of things I was learning in California was astounding. Every trip outside the wire was a learning experience. As I drove I was taught how to look for improvised explosive devices. During my down time outside the tent, we were taught how to clear rooms. My press releases and pictures were scoured for operational security violations like never before.

I remember thinking, "How on earth am I going to keep all of this straight' Am I in over my head'"

It turns out I was ready. I passed every test Iraq threw at me. The training worked like it was supposed to and I returned a more confident Soldier and an experienced combat veteran.
As the 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team has prepared to return to Iraq for its fourth deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, I was ready for our most recent return to NTC in July. To my surprise, a lot more than the temperature there had changed.

The towns made of railway boxcars now looked like actual Iraqi towns. Instead of one genuine Iraqi role player surrounded by Americans dressed as Arab people, the whole town was filled with genuine Iraqis. Arabic was spoken everywhere.

The training missions were different. The brigade wasn't concentrating on room clearing and leading operations anymore. We were training to support the Iraqi Security Forces; rather than training on how to employ them in our operations.

The biggest change, however, was how I was seeing things. Everything seemed to slow down and become more manageable. I found myself answering more questions than I was asking. My leaders were relying on me more and giving me more responsibility.

I think it is normal to expect that I would be more knowledgeable with a deployment under my belt and a few years in the Army. That, to me, is normal growth.

What I found out at the National Training Center during my second rotation was how much I had grown emotionally and mentally. In two and a half years, I went from a Soldier that was unsure of his abilities to a Soldier that wasn't afraid to make mistakes. I changed from a Soldier whose leaders were trying to mold him; into a competent Soldier that they relied upon. I went from a Soldier that asked a million questions to a Soldier that had answers for them.

I can only imagine and hope that if I make another return to California and NTC, that I will have grown even more as a professional and a Soldier. What a difference a few years can make.