GULFPORT -- About 2,000 people from 60 units will be in Gulfport for two weeks as part of a large-scale military exercise hosted by the Mississippi National Guard. It will involve every military branch and, for the first time, several international partners.
Southern Strike, now in its fourth year, started Sunday at the Combat Readiness Training Center and will run through Nov. 6. Realistic scenarios will allow soldiers to train for overseas deployment and to practice with people and technology they may not have regular access to at their home bases.
As the Base Closure and Realignment Commission starts examining bases to be consolidated or closed, the exercise also allows South Mississippi to showcase its training advantages in hopes of keeping all five area bases open.
"This shows how important Gulfport and Camp Shelby is for our national defense," said Col. Craig Ziemba, the director of the exercise. "We have a culture here that can put on large-scale war games."
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On Wednesday morning, a group of Reserve and Guard personnel from Jackson, San Antonio and Colorado Springs conducted aero-medevac training aboard a C-17 transport aircraft.
They practiced transporting a group of people in need of medical care, simulating both overseas deployment and disaster relief in the U.S.
The group took off from the CRTC, flew to Stennis to pick up patients, circled for several hours practicing medical emergencies, then landed and dropped off the patients at Stennis and returned to Gulfport.
The training also allows troops to practice on the C-17. Because the military maintains three types of aircraft for similar situations, soldiers might be called upon to use a plane they don't regularly train on.
"So it's really important to come out and train on this," said Jackson-based TSgt. Megan Clifton.
SMSgt. Doug Ferrell has been in the military for 33 years but his unit switched to the C-17 about a year ago. Because of personnel reductions, he and other load masters in his unit are also training to function as flight engineers.
"This is all brand-new so we're having a lot of fun with it," he said.
Also Wednesday morning, 30 fighter jets practiced engaging over the Gulf of Mexico. As part of the war games, the National Guard divided the Coast into several nations -- Rebelania, Bulldonia, the People's Bayou Republic and Crimsonia -- and had the jets conduct mock air battles.
Ground-to-air battles will be simulated at Camp Shelby.
Over two weeks, troops will also train in counterinsurgency, air supremacy, close air support, en-route casualty care, non-combatant evacuation, humanitarian airlifts and special operations missions.
Southern Strike has grown quickly over the four years. In 2012, the units involved flew 50 sorties. This year, 750 are planned.
This is also the first year a few other countries are participating.
Maj. Ashley Nickloes with the Tennessee National Guard was in Gulfport directing the air-refueling training.
"The U.S. can get assets anywhere around the world in hours and we do that through air refueling," she said. "It's extremely important."