Specialized U.S. troops poised in Uzbekistan

10th Mountain Division trained to fight, even in Afghanistan winter

War On Terrorism

Military Response

November 03, 2001|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - For several weeks, soldiers from the Army's 10th Mountain Division have been deployed to Uzbekistan, providing security at a former Soviet air base and preparing - if needed - to head into Afghanistan and fight the Taliban militia.

"The 10th Mountain Division is prepared to fight anywhere, anytime and anybody in this environment or any environment," said a private named Rachel, who could not give her full name for security reasons. "All the soldiers here had cold weather training."

Soldiers from the division, based at Fort Drum, outside Watertown, N.Y., spoke with reporters at the Pentagon in a 30-minute teleconference call, though they could offer no details about their activities, even their numbers or location.

They were the first U.S. soldiers on the ground in Central Asia who have been interviewed during the month-old anti-terrorist effort, Operation Enduring Freedom.

30 miles from border

Pentagon officials and reporters who are in Uzbekistan, however, have said the division has more than 1,000 troops stationed at a base in the southern part of the Central Asian country, less than 30 miles from the Afghan border.

One Uzbek soldier told a reporter last week that he has seen U.S. heavy-lift helicopters taking off from the base, escorted by attack helicopters, heading south toward Afghanistan and returning several hours later.

Some military officers in the Pentagon have said some of the U.S. Special Operations soldiers are also stationed in Uzbekistan.

A "Mountaineer" private named Dan said, "Morale is high here." Soldiers are able to make phone calls home and write letters. There are hot showers, and several soldiers said the conditions are better than those they experienced in Bosnia or Kosovo.

"We are well taken care of," said Rachel, who as a woman is prohibited from participating in ground combat.

The soldiers said they spend their days on guard duty or training in their particular military specialties, everything from chemical decontamination to mortars. Another would not say whether they have any contact with Uzbek soldiers, although the local residents "seem open and friendly."

Still, the soldiers said they are eager for any kind of information on sports. Many of them are missing the World Series because of their military duties. "Unfortunately, we were busy," said a staff sergeant named Charles.

One soldier requested magazines; another asked for candy - Gummi Bears.

Since World War II

The 10th Mountain is a highly trained "light" division, meaning it has no tanks or Bradley fighting vehicles. It also has a storied past. Formed in the midst of World War II, the division comprises soldiers skilled on skis and trained to scale cliffs.

They experienced heavy fighting during the war, particularly in the mountains of northern Italy. One of its officers, the future Kansas senator and Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole, was seriously injured there by a mortar blast.

After the war, many of the former soldiers were instrumental in boosting the fledgling ski industry, helping to build resorts in Colorado and Utah.

In recent times, 10th Mountain soldiers have deployed to Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo. Now they are among the first U.S. soldiers ever to be deployed in a former Soviet republic.

The twin attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center have a special meaning for troops who come from New York, said Rachel.

"Sept. 11th is definitely memorable to all of us, especially [because of] the state it occurred in," she said.

"We all feel the suffering and the loss."

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