FORT STEWART, Ga. - The 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division kicked off its first collective training exercise at Fort Stewart, Feb. 22. The operation dubbed Vanguard Focus is preparing nearly 3,500 Soldiers for an upcoming deployment to Iraq.

The 4th IBCT, which transformed from a heavy armored unit to light-infantry last September, is now tackling its newest initiative - to advise and assist. Vanguard Command Sergeant Major Joseph Altman said his 'Advise and Assist' brigade will help set up the Iraqi government for success when U.S. Soldiers withdraw from the Iraqi theatre.

"The (Advise and Assist) mission also allows us to build rapport with the Iraqi people, so that we can maintain a good, long-term relationship after the war, much like the U.S. did in Europe and Korea," he said.

During the two-week field operation, Soldiers are evaluated on their ability to accomplish both lethal and nonlethal tasks, to include training and facilitating Iraqi Security Forces, key leader engagement, cordon and search operations, reacting to improvised explosive devices, and other scenarios that mirror Iraq's current status.

"The situational exercises are great training tools," said 4th IBCT psychological operations planner and observer controller, Sgt. 1st Class David Cogdill. "Incorporating Iraqi role-players into the scenarios help provide Soldiers with an intense, chaotic and realistic environment similar to what they could face while deployed."

Sergeant Douglas Firely, member of Troop B, 6th Squadron, 8th U.S. Cavalry Regiment, 4th IBCT, said the role-playing Iraqi locals he encountered during a cordon and search mission, Feb. 26, reminded him of his last tour to Iraq.

"They were very realistic," he said. "The Soldiers who have not yet deployed now have a good idea of what's to come."

Private Hunter Mercher, a rifleman with Company A, 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment, 4th IBCT, said he feels better prepared for his upcoming first deployment after he rehearsed the situational training exercise lanes with his unit, Feb. 28 and March 1.

"I now see the big picture," he said. "We started out with squad level, then platoon, and company level drills; (Vanguard Focus) is exercising everything we've learned."

Though Vanguard Focus was configured to be complex, the scenarios will intensify when the brigade deploys to the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., in April.

"Vanguard Focus helps give Soldiers a sense of brotherhood, teamwork, camaraderie and a sense of self confidence to accomplish the complicated tasks they will face at NTC," said Command Sgt. Maj. Altman.

The 1st Battalion, 76th Field Artillery Regiment and the 3rd Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment will also rotate troops through the training lanes during the second week of the brigade-wide exercise, while Soldiers assigned to 4-3 Brigade Special Troops Battalion and 703rd Brigade Support Battalion provide the Vanguard team with logistical support. Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield tenant units like the 731st Explosive Ordnance Disposal Company and the 385th Military Police Company are also assisting the field exercise, which is scheduled to be completed March 5.