Standing over the engine compartment of a Stryker fighting vehicle in the warm afternoon winds of the Mojave Desert, Pvt. Joshua Lopez is a long way from home.
The intense heat, the whipping gusts throwing sand and dust into his face and the sprawling, barren landscape resemble nothing to be found in Coon Rapids, Minn., where the 19-year-old grew up.
â€œThe hottest I ever saw it get there was 92 degrees,â€ he says, taking a break from draining oil from the vehicle. â€œThe coldest was negative 40.â€
â€œThe environment right now is probably the best one you can get to simulate Afghanistan,â€ he says.
He looks around at the vast, arid terrain stretched before him.
â€œYou canâ€™t really get any better, right?â€
A Stryker systems maintainer, Lopez is new to the Army, heâ€™s new to his unit, and heâ€™s new to the world of mechanics â€“ brand spanking new, as he puts it.
He arrived at his brigade little more than a month ago, and already heâ€™s ramping up to deploy with it this fall.
Lopez arrived at the National Training Center June 1, along with the first group of 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division Soldiers for a month-long preparation for combat â€“ the brigadeâ€™s first tour to Afghanistan.
For many of the Soldiers whose generation has endured more than ten years of overseas conflict, the NTC is familiar ground. But for Lopez, the exercise is serving as part of his crash course with Army life outside his initial 30 months of training.
Here, heâ€™s short on experience and short on comfort and familiarity, but heâ€™s making up for it by learning quickly. He has no choice.
â€œIt doesnâ€™t give him any time to get complacent,â€ says Sgt. Joshua Nunnally, Lopezâ€™s squad leader in the 2nd Combat Repair Team, Company B, 702nd Brigade Support Battalion.
Nunnally is leaning against a Humvee next to the Stryker, watching Lopez as he pumps oil from a component of the vehicle known as its onboard oil exchange, which serves to lubricate the engineâ€™s head.
As part of the brigadeâ€™s first week at the NTC, he and his team are ensuring some of the Strykers are in tiptop shape before their two weeks of back-to-back missions in the isolation of the desert, which Soldiers here refer to more intimately as â€œthe boxâ€ â€“ the same thing many of them call Iraq and Afghanistan.
â€œI just want to fill in my right patch,â€ Lopez says, referring to the earning of a combat patch that denotes deployment to a war zone. â€œNot exactly to get it (deployment) over with, but just to try and enjoy it as much as I can.
â€œI just want to learn as much as I can while I can.â€
And under the beating sun, heâ€™s getting a good start at that.
Nunnally observes Lopezâ€™s work and steps in whenever he gets stuck, tiptoeing to peer down with him into the giant machine and give pointers.
While Lopez waits for Nunnally to grab a pump he calls a â€œVampire pump,â€ Lopez shares a trick Nunnally passed on from his years as a Stryker mechanic.
â€œYou can make your own tools,â€ Lopez says, placing the closed end of a combination wrench over the opened end of another.
â€œSay youâ€™re at an angle, but you just canâ€™t turn the wrench this way,â€ he says, holding the two wrenches out and joined.
â€œYou put it like this, and you can torque it. It gives you that extra momentum.â€
But Nunnallyâ€™s sharing goes deeper than handy tool manipulations and what he calls â€œthe little nuances of being a mechanic.â€
The sergeant has deployed once to Iraq and once to Afghanistan. He holds the answers to Lopezâ€™s questions of uncertainty in a foreign land.
â€œHeâ€™s asking a lot of questions, which is really good,â€ says Nunnally, a Milford, Mass., native. â€œIâ€™ve asked him, â€˜Are you scared?â€™ And he says he is.Â If he wasnâ€™t, Iâ€™d be worried about his mental state.â€
Nunnally said he and the others in the unit who have deployed show Lopez photos of their time in Iraq and Afghanistan â€“ the best tangible proof they have of their time there.
But the NTC, he says, will give Lopez a solid idea of what to expect downrange.
â€œItâ€™ll be pretty realistic, and heâ€™ll have a pretty good idea of what itâ€™s like to go,â€ Nunnally says.
The new and unforgiving climate, the fast-paced learning and the lingering concerns of life in a combat zone might be a lot for one young Soldier to juggle, but they arenâ€™t swaying the pride Lopez has in simply being a Soldier.
â€œTo me, itâ€™s an honor,â€ he says. â€œItâ€™s about putting yourself in front of something you know needs to be done.â€
â€œItâ€™s just a sense of honor to be part of something big.â€
â€œI think heâ€™ll be a career Soldier,â€ Nunnally says, his arms folded, looking up at Lopez as he sips water and looks down from the vehicle at a seemingly never-ending row of more Strykers.
â€œI can see it in him,â€ he says, beaming and chuckling proudly. â€œHe likes it; he really likes it.â€