HOPKINSVILLE, Ky., July 27, 2010 -- A blast from a new and more powerful Howitzer ripples through a soybean field and emits the strong scent of cordite. Somewhere in the distance, a shell that weighs more than 90 pounds destroys everything around it. Captain Dave Henderson of East Providence, R.I., chuckles.
"It is loud," he said. "If you stand next to one of those, you can feel the shockwave. But I'm an artilleryman. This makes my day. This is like NFL Sunday for me."
Henderson commands a field artillery battery nicknamed "Bone Crushers," part of the 101st Airborne's 4th Brigade Combat Team that is the last brigade to deploy as part of President Obama's 30,000 troops surge.
"I appreciate the full focus now of the American people and everyone seeing how important Afghanistan really is," said Henderson, for whom this will be the fourth deployment but the first when he sees the public's attention is on Afghanistan and not on Iraq.
"I think Afghanistan is the central focus, and it definitely should be," he said.
The debate over the country's longest war has intensified with the leak of tens of thousands of classified documents by the website WikiLeaks. They provide evidence of what troops at this Army post already know will be a difficult fight against a resilient enemy. And while the soldiers we met had little to say about the documents, it's clear some of what's in those pages has influenced their training.
"Our job is to make sure our rounds aren't hitting the people they shouldn't be hitting," said Henderson.
The documents say, among other things, civilian casualties are higher than official estimates, but the soldiers about to deploy have been specifically trained to avoid them.
"The training that we're getting here and the greater focus on collateral damage and the greater focus on protecting the populace will have good effects," said Henderson.
Hearing the boom from the Howitzer his unit operates it's difficult to imagine that bit of weaponry reducing body count. Henderson told us it does because of the precision-guided artillery round it fires.
"The Excalibur round it can be accurate to within 30 meters. We're looking forward to providing that kind of accuracy."
Many of these troops will be living in outposts placed in neighborhoods and villages, conducting foot patrols with Afghan forces.
"How we treat people, how we treat others and their property, that is a big part of our force protection on the streets and in the villages and it starts the moment you get off the aircraft," Col. Sean Jenkins, 4BCT commanding officer, reminded troops about to board a C-17 for Afghanistan.
"How we treat the Afghan people, how we drive, we treat them with respect and that will come back to help us with our mission," Jenkins said.
The troops here are heading to the front lines at a time when the Taliban is at its strongest since 2001. But Specialist Nathaniel Holmes of Iowa wasn't thinking about the enemy.
"I'm trying not to think about my wife being here by herself," he said in his final moments on US soil.
"We had talks but when you talk about it it's not the same of having it actually happen."
This is his first deployment. He has been married five months.
"I think about how I'm going to keep occupied so I'm not thinking of home," said Holmes, one of the newest faces of a nine-year war that he is entering as part of a plan to bring about an end.