Caution, breakdowns slow move to Iraq

Army truck convoy takes 18 hours to travel 30 miles

March 28, 2003|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SOUTHERN IRAQ - For an elite rapid-deployment force, the Army's 101st Airborne Division sometimes moves excruciatingly slowly. It took a truck convoy a full 18 hours to move just 30 miles from its base camp in northern Kuwait to the Iraqi border yesterday - only the beginning of a long journey.

One or another vehicle would break down, and when it was fixed another would stall. Even when the convoy moved, it did so at about 10 miles an hour, passed on both sides by other American and British military vehicles including a caravan of 54 fuel tankers.

"At this pace, we'll get there by next weekend," grumbled Staff Sgt. John Ellis, who served in the Persian Gulf war of 1991.

When the convoy finally crossed from Kuwait into Iraq, everyone gazed outside like passengers on a tour gone wrong. Children - grimy, clearly not well off - lined the road, some waving, others flashing a thumbs up. A boy standing by himself just pointed to his stomach. Soldiers had been told not to throw food or candy, and most complied.

This stretch was fully under American control, and most Iraqis seemed to be trying to go about their lives.

Shepherds tended goats amid tufts of grass poking through the sand. Women balanced water on their heads as they walked to their low mud-brick houses. A family pulling a donkey dodged the Humvees on the road.

The convoy was significant because it was taking another part of the 101st Airborne as helicopters flew hundreds of infantry soldiers to a staging area. The combined air and land move also meant that more of the division's helicopter-borne infantry would soon be positioned closer to missions they expect to carry out in the war.

Commanders spent hours planning the route of the convoy, in hopes of avoiding attacks by Iraqi paramilitary forces.

"No wrong turns," said Command Sgt. Maj. Thomas Woodhams.

"Roger that," replied Maj. Chris Forbes.

Another worry was that livestock or children might be pushed in front of military vehicles in an attempt to stop them, possibly to set up an ambush.

"If a civilian tries to block the route, run them over," said Lt. Col. Ed Palekas, commander of the 3rd Battalion in the Bastogne Brigade. "Do not stop." A similar alert applied if anyone approached troops as if to surrender.

Troops were told to show their weapons first and then, if anyone acted menacingly, to shoot.

The mood was upbeat, festive almost, when the convoy prepared to depart Kuwait. Soldiers had been confined to the 1-square-mile of Camp Pennsylvania for three weeks, and grinning soldiers mugged for cameras and smoked cigars, and their stereos blasted Metallica and other heavy metal bands.

The convoy included hundreds of vehicles from transport trucks to Humvees, armed with weapons ranging from machine guns to anti-tank weapons.

For all that, the assemblage of aged vehicles did not look especially fearsome. Many of the Humvees had gear strapped to the roof, suggesting dust bowlers of the 1930s fleeing a different sort of sandy wasteland.

Perhaps the least-armed Humvee belonged to the chaplain, Capt. Sungnam Kim. He rode with his guard Sgt. Jon Wicks, Ellis and a reporter.

Everyone was confined to the Humvee, but the sun was shining and the windows were rolled down. Wicks played a Bill Cosby comedy tape and Tony Bennett tunes on his boom box. Ellis reminisced merrily about how he used to harass young privates.

The slow, relaxed pace made the war feel far away in a sense, even though every gun was locked and loaded. But everyone realized the fun would fade the farther north the convoy crept.

Kim, Ellis and Wicks all said they supported the war, yet all three have much waiting for them back home.

Kim, 39, has a wife and three daughters. Ellis, 42, has a wife of four months. Wicks, 24, wants to start a family and figures the best way to do that is to leave the Army. It is too hard to find a girlfriend when you might go off to fight a war, he said.

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