Huge challenges for storied 101st Airborne

Large-scale deployment complex

troops would go far beyond front in Iraq

March 02, 2003|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. - A quiet settled over the low-slung brick headquarters of the 3rd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment last week. Many of its 700 soldiers were going home to say goodbye to their families for half a year or longer.

The battalion belongs to the Army's 101st Airborne Division, which is deploying to Kuwait for a possible war with Iraq. Its deployment is a vast undertaking that includes the airlift of 19,000 soldiers from here to the Persian Gulf, one of the final stages of a U.S. troop buildup expected to approach 250,000.

"We've been gearing up, ready to go for several months," said Maj. Chris Forbes. "We feel it's time to go."

As a helicopter-based air assault division, the 101st is equipped to go far beyond the front lines to attack opposing forces and seize airfields, bridges and other key sites. Apache attack helicopters fly armed with Hellfire missiles. The division's infantry troops reach forward positions in Black Hawks and Chinooks.

If there is war "the 101st will be deep in enemy territory, I guarantee you," said Maj. Hugh C. Cate III, division public affairs officer. "That is our mission."

Before leaving, troops stepped up training for possible chemical or biological weapons attacks. Dreyer Field House, a gymnasium at Fort Campbell, resembled a giant doctor's office with soldiers dressed in desert camouflage filing through for anthrax and smallpox vaccinations.

Yet, at the 3rd Battalion, weapons of mass destruction are not necessarily the top concern.

"Quite frankly, our guys are more worried about getting shot than getting stuff slimed on them," said Lt. Col. Ed Palekas, commander of the battalion, a subset of the 1st Brigade.

Palekas said his forces could be called on to engage in house-to-house combat in and around Baghdad if a war takes U.S. troops to the Iraqi capital.

Whatever happens, Palekas said, echoing a refrain long uttered by confident commanders, "the soldiers are ready."

Palekas has missed out on every military conflict the Army has taken part in during his two decades in the service and is not happy about it. "I've been waiting 19 1/2 years," he said. "This is our chance."

About 200,000 troops are in the gulf region, with more expected to follow. In addition to those with the 101st, about 1,500 paratroopers in the 173rd Airborne Brigade based at Vincenza, Italy, have received orders to deploy. Elements of the 1st Armored Division, based in Germany and Kansas, are also expected to be called.

Forces massing in Kuwait include the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force and the Army's 3rd Infantry Division. The 4th Infantry Division would probably be positioned to move from Turkey into Iraq. Special Forces - including some based at Fort Campbell - are thought to be in Jordan positioning themselves to sweep into western Iraq.

The 101st is nicknamed the "Screaming Eagles," and the profile of a menacing eagle with a wide-open beak is ubiquitous at Fort Campbell. Screaming Eagle Boulevard is one of the major thoroughfares on the post.

Formed during World War II, the division was led by Maj. Gen. William C. Lee, who provided a motto when he told recruits that they had no history but "a rendezvous with destiny." Events proved him right: The 101st took part in the D-Day invasion of France in 1944.

A short time later, the division found itself surrounded by German troops during the Battle of the Bulge. When the Germans demanded surrender, the 101st's acting commander, Brig. Gen. Anthony C. McAuliffe, famously replied, "Nuts!" The units managed to hold Bastogne, Belgium, for 10 days.

The division took part in the Korean and Vietnam wars, and in 1990 Apaches in the 101st fired some of the first shots of Operation Desert Storm, targeting Iraqi radar sites. During the brief ground war that followed, its units made the "longest and deepest combat air assaults into enemy territory in history," according to division history.

Members of the division's 3rd Brigade fought in the Afghanistan war last year. Some did not return to Fort Campbell until October. Now they have left again or soon will.

For any soldier bound for the Persian Gulf, the new orders mean saying goodbye to family for an indefinite time.

The deployment began Feb. 6, when materiel and supplies began moving overseas. The division has 5,800 pieces of rolling stock, such as Humvees and tanker trucks, and 270 helicopters.

More than 1,400 rail cars carried equipment to port, with lumbering C-5 and C-17 cargo planes hauling tons more.

Now the personnel phase is well under way. Since Wednesday, troops have been leaving Fort Campbell. Soldiers are making last-minute purchases, which is why it took all of 50 minutes for the Eagles of War store to sell a new shipment of 144 floppy "boonie" hats ideally suited for the desert.

Up to 18 planes are taking off daily from the base's airfield, Cate said. Palekas' 3rd Battalion headed out yesterday.

"I think it'll be a ghost town by Tuesday," Cate said.

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