At Fort Bragg, 82nd Airborne hones its edge

Mission is to seize enemy's airport so that U.S. can land forces

October 07, 2001|By Dahleen Glanton | Dahleen Glanton,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

FORT BRAGG, N.C. - Sgt. Steven Snyder is getting his affairs in order. He has updated his will, directed his paycheck to go to his family and given his wife, Jamie, power of attorney. For the first time in his six years in the military, the 27-year-old soldier is facing the grim reality that he likely will go to war.

An infantryman in the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, Snyder has spent the last year and a half preparing for dangerous missions. His division is capable of deploying soldiers and conducting airborne operations anywhere in the world within 18 hours.

They are normally the first to arrive on hostile ground, parachuting from C-130s in the dead of night, camouflaged for a sneak attack. Their mission is to take over the enemy's airport so that U.S. military planes carrying ground troops, M-1 Abrams and M-2 or M-3 Bradley tanks can land safely.

The soldier in Snyder reassures him that the intense training, using both simulated computerized war techniques and weeks of combat exercises off base as well as in the forests of the sprawling 160,000-acre post, has prepared him for a grueling mission abroad. But his human side longs for assurances that he will return home to see his 6-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter grow up.

`I'm happy to serve'

"As a father, I will admit I am concerned. But as a soldier, I am ready to deploy anywhere my country needs me, and I'm happy to serve," Snyder said, standing outside a tent where dozens of soldiers lined up to take care of last-minute business last week. "I want my wife to have power of attorney so that she can take care of any problems that come up if I am deployed."

The White House has said much of America's war on terrorism will be fought with assault units such as the 82nd Airborne and the military's special counter-terrorism forces, shadowy units that use the element of surprise as their key weapon. These highly specialized soldiers move in, get the job done quickly and leave, often without the public ever knowing they've been there. Many of them come from Fort Bragg, the command center for all the U.S. military's elite special operations forces.

About 16,000 of the military's 47,000 special operations soldiers are stationed here, including members of the Green Berets and the Army Rangers. The top-secret Delta Force, a counter-terrorism unit so classified that the government does not acknowledge that it exists, reportedly is based at Fort Bragg. Other secretive forces stationed at bases throughout the United States, including the Navy SEAL Team Six, also report to the Joint Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg.

More than 9,000 U.S. and allied troops are trained each year at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, where soldiers learn, among other things, specialized fighting techniques, languages and emergency medical care. The Army's Psychological Operations and Civil Affairs units are also based here.

Answering the call

"We have a saying here that when the president dials 911, the phone call is answered at Fort Bragg. We see ourselves as the center of the military universe, and we take pride in being the installation that has the resources to deploy before anyone else," said Col. Tad Davis, garrison commander for the base. "We have the capability to move a battalion task force of 1,000 within 18 hours. The 82nd Airborne, along with the Special Forces we have here, make Fort Bragg a focal point of any engagement."

U.S. Special Forces are reported to have begun scouting and intelligence-gathering missions in Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden, who is suspected of spearheading the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington, and other terrorists are believed to be hiding. Units of the 82nd Airborne, an assault unit that is not part of the special forces, are also reported to have arrived at bases in Pakistan, near the border towns of Quetta and Peshawar, which could be a prelude to military action.

Officials at the base have refused to comment. "These are the kinds of operations that the public won't know when or if they go," said Col. Roger King, head of public affairs at the base. "These soldiers work under a shroud of secrecy. They don't like a lot of attention or publicity."

In the meantime, Fort Bragg officials said, troops have been operating under normal training schedules. Security has been severely tightened at the Army base of 42,000 people and at adjacent Pope Air Force Base, located about 90 miles from Raleigh, N.C.

Computerized training

High-tech artillery and surveillance equipment will play a major role in the military's efforts to track down and destroy terrorist networks. Computers also have replaced some field exercises as a means of training staff and crew of the 82nd Division, said Col. Karl Horst, the division's chief of staff. Instead of spending weeks in the woods, these troops participate in computerized battles, using icons as soldiers and a mouse as their weapon.

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