For two months the 101st Airborne Division has been ready to leave the next day. The wait is over.
By WES ALLISON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 1, 2003
FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. -- They had spent the night before in nervous anticipation of the weeks and months ahead, packing and repacking, saying goodbye to their families, gorging on pizza and beer.
Now it was Friday afternoon, and the young soldiers were piled inside a hangar, waiting. Outside, a line of jetliners roared the inevitable: After two months of being told it might leave at any time, the 101st Airborne Division was shipping out.
"I just had another little kid. I got two babies at the house," said Pfc. Gabriel Fletcher, 21, of Leesville, La., a member of the 187th Infantry Regiment. "I hate to leave them at home with my wife so soon after getting back from Afghanistan. I'm ready to get over there, get it done and get back."
The troop planes began leaving here Wednesday, 10 to 18 each day. By Tuesday, nearly 19,000 soldiers from the 101st Airborne -- virtually all of its available personnel -- will have left for the Middle East, division commanders say. They won't say where they're bound, leaving soldiers to speculate it's Kuwait, or Turkey, or even Iraq itself.
"We ain't got a clue," said Pvt. Ryan Braddock, 22, of Manhattan, Kan. "The Army's pretty good about not telling you where or when you're going."
The 101st Airborne Division has a unique role in the U.S. military. Its mandate: Be prepared to go anywhere in the world within just 36 hours. Once there, the division must be able to move its three combat brigades -- each with almost 4,000 soldiers -- up to 90 miles within six hours.
The division uses helicopters to move troops and equipment, attacking enemy positions and taking airfields, dams and bridges. Most recently, the infantry has been training for urban warfare.
Its nickname is the Screaming Eagles.
"If this happens, if the president decides to use us, the 101st will be deep inside enemy territory," said Maj. Hugh "Trey" Cate III, a beefy infantry officer turned public affairs director. "We can go farther faster with more combat power than any division in the U.S. Army."
Fort Campbell straddles the Kentucky-Tennessee line about an hour north of Nashville, a sprawling compound of white, World War II-era clapboard barracks and wide expanses of training ground.
The 101st was formed during World War II so the Army could drop infantry behind enemy lines, and Fort Campbell offers constant reminders of its battlefield successes: Bastogne Avenue. Normandy Boulevard. A Shau Valley Road. Desert Storm Avenue.
For soldiers, the division's bloody history gives pause as well as inspiration.
"There is a certain amount of fear in it, but you can't go in there and let the fear that you have affect the way that you operate," Braddock said.
It snowed here Wednesday, and the thick, low clouds haven't budged since. Afternoon looks just like morning, giving the base a feeling of being suspended in time.
And in a way, it is. Mobilizing the 101st has been a continuous, arduous process of readying equipment, vaccinating troops, inspecting gear and saying goodbye.
The gritty strip of Chinese restaurants, barbershops, and stores outside the gates are packed with soldiers and their families on last-minute errands and splurges. The military supply stores have been stripped nearly clean of large rucksacks and shoulder holsters.
All week, lines of troops in beige desert camouflage, their shoulders hunched to the weight of their rucksacks, snaked to the buses that took them to the cavernous hangars at the airfield.
For some, like Staff Sgt. Ron Henry, a 15-year veteran from Plant City who coordinates supplies, deployment is just part of being in the Army. For others, it is a new and frightening experience.
Pfc. Sarrisa Young, 23, is leaving her 8- and 2-year-old children with her mother at home in Chieftown, near Gainesville. She joined the Army in part because of her anger after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which killed two friends working at the World Trade Center.
"I'm really nervous. I'm so nervous," Young said Friday at the Division Supply Command, which brings food, ammo, fuel and other supplies to the front-line troops. "But it's going to be a big adventure for me. I'll be all right."
So far, the toughest skill required for membership in one of the fastest, most powerful strike forces in the Army is the ability, on occasion, simply to wait.
And since Christmas they have. Every week for the past two months, the soldiers of the 101st have been warned they might leave the next week. Many infantrymen were under orders to be ready to report on an hour's notice, making trips and big family outings virtually impossible.
Friday, in the drafty old hangar on the edge of a runway, soldiers of the 187th Infantry were finally about to leave. Most had gathered with their companies about 3 a.m., then were herded to the hangar at dawn.
Twelve hours later, they were still there. They played hearts on the cold concrete floor, read paperbacks, or slept next to their M-4 rifles, their pimply shaved heads cushioned by green nylon rucksacks. Once aboard the planes, it will take two days to get wherever they're going.
"We've all pretty much been up all night," said Spec. Martin Matchette, 24, of Vinton, La. "Packing crap, waiting. Packing crap, waiting. All night."
He motioned to his colleagues sprawled about the room. "Half of them are bored, the other half are scared," he said. "You'd be a darned fool if you weren't scared."
But there is bravado, too. Matchette dug into the pocket of his desert fatigues and unfolded a sheet of paper. "I plan on putting this on the palace in Baghdad," he said.
It was a sketch of a firefighter standing in the rubble of the World Trade Center. He was passing an American flag to a soldier. The soldier was saying, "I'll take it from here."
-- The 101st Airborne Division, known as the Screaming Eagles, is based at Fort Campbell, Ky.
-- The unit was activated on Aug. 16, 1942. Originally, it was made up of parachute infantry regiments, glider regiments and artillery battalions.
-- The 101st led the way for D-Day, June 6, 1944, by parachuting and taking gliders in behind enemy lines before the invasion on the beaches of Normandy.
-- During the Battle of the Bulge when the 101st was surrounded at Bastogne, Belgium, Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe answered "nuts!" to a German demand for a surrender, and the Screaming Eagles fought on until the siege was lifted.
-- The division's actions in World War II were highlighted in historian Stephen Ambrose's book,Band of Brothers, which was later turned into a miniseries on HBO.
-- In the 1960s, the 101st began using helicopters to transport troops and supplies, making it an obvious choice for the Vietnam War. The 101st fought in both the Tet Offensive and the Tet Counter Offensive, taking part in the battle for what became known as Hamburger Hill. The 101st was the last combat division to leave Vietnam.
-- Today, the division is formed of three brigades plus Division Artillery, Division Support Command, the 101st Aviation Brigade, 159th Aviation Brigade, 101st Corps Support Group and several separate commands. It carries out helicopter air assault operations and is capable of transporting a 4,000-soldier combined arms task force more than 90 miles into enemy terrain in one lift.
-- SOURCES: 101st Airborne Division Web site; GlobalSecurity.org