Fort Bragg heeds Bush's advice to be ready

New sense of urgency marks brigade drills, base's tighter security

Terrorism Strikes America

The Nation

September 22, 2001|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

FORT BRAGG, N.C. - To hear Brig. Gen. Bill Fox tell it, it was "just another day" at this sprawling Army post on the Carolina coastal plane where paratroopers train.

The huge Air Force C-17 transport made three passes over the "drop zone," disgorging its load of medical supplies and units of the 44th Medical Brigade, the only airborne medical brigade in the Army.

The soldiers - X-ray technicians, doctors and nurses among them - floated gracefully to earth and quickly began setting up a field hospital, just as they practice doing almost monthly.

But ever since terrorists hijacked four commercial jetliners and crashed them into the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in suburban Washington and a field in Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, "there's a little more urgency, a little more sense of reality for us," said Fox, who joined his troops for yesterday's jump.

"We don't know when we're going or where we're going, or even if we're going, but this is what we're trained to do and we're ready."

It is the expression you hear most frequently among the few troops at the home of XVIII Airborne Corps and the Army's Special Operations Command who will talk to outsiders.

"Our president told us, if you wear this uniform be ready," said Brig. Gen. Ann E. Dunwoody, commander of the airborne support troops that supply paratroopers with everything from beans to bullets. "We're ready."

Staff Sgt. Amanda Glenn of the Army's Special Operations Command said she knows the orders are coming. It's just a question of when.

"We're waiting, and we're ready," she said. "Whenever, wherever, whatever."

The special operations command here and officials at adjoining Pope Air Force base acknowledge that they have received deployment orders, but will say little else.

Yesterday, Col. Robert King, a Fort Bragg spokesman, said discussion of any further deployment orders would come from Washington.

Tighter security

Once a relatively open post where visitors could come and go freely, Fort Bragg is operating under tight restrictions.

Bright-yellow Jersey barriers have been placed on the main roads into the post to force traffic into single lanes. The barriers have been used to block other entrances.

Guards who once waved vehicles with Fort Bragg decals through now check identification cards of every passenger in every vehicle at every gate, backing up traffic on the roads leading into the post for miles.

Guards armed with M-16s, backed up by others in vehicles with machine guns mounted on them, stop traffic at points in the middle of the post to check for identification.

"It's the first time we've closed off all known avenues of approach," said Command Sgt. Major Eusebius P. Cadet of the support command.

Guards were positioned along the perimeter of the three-mile wide, five-mile long drop zone for yesterday's exercise.

The rumble of the C-17 could be heard moments before it appeared in the east, above the scrub pines, lining up with the drop zone.

It passed slowly over the field, seeming suspended in the air, as the first parachute appeared from the tail, pulling two huge chutes attached to a reinforced steel pallet of medical supplies. Then another small chute, two large ones and the second pallet of supplies.

The plane banked slowly right in a huge circle and disappeared over the trees, returning about 10 minutes later and flying lower. Suddenly paratroopers poured out both doors, tumbling down slides and into the air. Then their chutes popped open.

Thirty-five of them drifted to the ground in almost a straight line as the C-17 banked for one more circle and one more pass. Soon, Fox and Sgt. Major Raymond Ashmore, a 27-year veteran combat medic, appeared in battle regalia, faces smeared with camouflage green as their troops set up the field hospitals.

They can do it in about an hour, Fox said.

The training has taken on an added significance, Ashmore said.

"We didn't think anything like this would ever happen, but now the soliders are probably training a little harder than they would," he said.

`Emotionally draining'

On a cement reviewing platform nearby, Lorraine Bryant and her three children watched the exercise.

Her husband was among the airborne medics who had just floated to earth.

She's nervous and worried that her husband might be going to some remote, hostile place where bullets are flying, she said.

The younger children, 2-year-old Ashly, and 5-month-old Trevor, who was sucking on his bottle, might not be aware of what's going on, but 3-year-old Taylor is, she said.

"It's a lot to worry about. It's emotionally draining to think that Daddy could leave anytime," Lorraine Bryant said. "It's kinda scary."

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