Dispatch from the 101st
The dayslong trip from Kentucky is the old Army story: Hurry up. Then wait for hours. Then hurry up. Then wait some more.
By WES ALLISON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 5, 2003
CAMP UDAIRI, Kuwait -- It started with a noontime call to arms Saturday in Kentucky and ended, blessedly, at the U.S. Army's main staging base four days later, just 10 miles from the Iraqi border.
After three sleepless nights and countless delays, the main body of troops and officers of the 101st Airborne Division arrived at its base camp Monday and Tuesday.
Camp Udairi is a windswept desert where the drum of generators and heavy equipment drowns out thought, and the fine dust can jam M-4 rifles and computer keyboards. The mess hall burned down Sunday. The wait for sodas or smokes at the post exchange is often five hours.
But to members of the 101st eager for a place to put down their packs and resume their preparations for war, it didn't matter. "I got my own little piece of Kuwait. I'm in heaven," said Sgt. 1st Class Ed Fennell after dropping his rucksack to the floor.
An urgent push by U.S. military planners to deploy 19,000 members of the 101st Airborne by mid week, plus thousands more from other Army units, has created a gargantuan logjam in Kuwait, the main staging area for a U.S.-led war against Iraq.
Despite revolutionary advances in communications, personnel management and transportation, the old saw about the Army remains as applicable today as ever: Hurry up and wait.
Since Saturday, much of the 101st has struggled to reach Camp Udairi while the Army's overburdened transportation tried to get them there. As they stole catnaps on the ground and spent hours playing dominoes, Sunday night bled into Monday morning, then Monday night bled into Tuesday.
"I don't know what day it is, I don't know what time it is, I don't know anything," said Pfc. Sarissa Young, 23, of Chiefland, Fla., a Humvee driver on her first overseas mission. "I lost track of everything."
The Army has long put its operational needs above logistic ones, officers explained, which often makes it difficult for suppliers -- transportation -- to keep up with the demand for troops, armaments and vehicles.
"Once it starts to back up, it just keeps backing up and backing up," said CWO2 J.P. Sansom, 35, of Lanoke, Ark., as he guarded a cache of M-4 rifles. "The intent of the command was to get as many people on the ground as quickly as we can."
Sansom grinned: "We're here."
Sansom, like Young, works in headquarters of the 101st Airborne's Division Supply Command, or DISCOM, a wide-ranging outfit that carries food, water, fuel and ammunition to front-line troops. It's also responsible for medical care, maintenance of the division's 270-helicopter fleet and for keeping track of goods and equipment.
Most of DISCOM's headquarters reported at noon Saturday at Fort Campbell to draw their rifles. They bid goodbye to their families and began the arduous process of leaving town.
They were told it would take about 10 hours to board the plane. It took 14. Fourteen numbing hours of loading rucksacks and duffles, of moving from one holding area to another, of napping and playing hearts and reading on the floors of airplane hangars.
At 1 a.m. Sunday, about 230 soldiers and a handful of civilians lined up in alphabetical order and boarded an American Trans Air L-1011. Over the next 22 hours, the plane would stop for refueling and crew changes in Newfoundland, Ireland and Cyprus before landing in Kuwait at 7:05 a.m. local time.
It was one of 10 troop planes waiting on the runway, and the Army did not have the buses to unload them. The DISCOM staff spent the next four hours waiting on the tarmac for a ride to nearby Camp Wolf, a key point of entry for U.S. and British forces.
After being herded into a holding tent, they were told they would travel to Camp Udairi later in the day. The departure was pushed back by an hour, then another hour, and another, until deep in the night.
With their gear waiting to be loaded, the soldiers slept on a bare wooden tent floor with their heads propped on their flak jackets and gas masks.
They were still there at dawn, when Capt. Richard Meyer told them they would be leaving at 7:30 a.m. -- sharp.
At 7:30, they learned they would be delayed another one to five hours.
One soldier who wasn't complaining was Spec. Keisha Coleman of Vienna, Ga., who was reunited with her husband after six months apart. Sgt. Orian Coleman is a mechanic for a military police unit that was shipped to Africa in September, then sent directly to Camp Wolf last month.
He found her waiting outside the DISCOM holding tent. The couple has three young children back home, she said.
Her husband, who has mess hall privileges, brought her a plate of spaghetti and shrimp while her friends made do with field rations. Then the couple went for a walk.
"This is as much as I have smiled in -- it's been hard," Spec. Coleman said. "I've been so happy today."
But DISCOM's officers and other soldiers became less charitable. Meyer and Maj. Sherry Corbett worked the phones at camp headquarters Tuesday morning, trying to score some buses.
"Yesterday it was 'We don't have containers (for the gear),"' Corbett barked into a cell phone. "Today is the day they don't have buses. We've been here 48 hours. We need some help from you to get us down range."
The buses arrived at 10. DISCOM soldiers and staff packed into five of them, their gear and personnel making for a tight fit. By noon they were still in the same spot, baking in the Kuwaiti sun.
The buses left soon after, however, for an off-road dash through the desert. The Kuwaiti bus drivers raced each other along the way, despite a curtain of dust that made Army tankers or transport impossible to see until the last moment.
The trip took 31/2 hours, and it was three more hours before members of DISCOM could load their gear into the darkened tent at Udairi.
Camp Udairi opened last year, but the real push to get troops here has come in the past week. Lt. Col. Pete Bosse, the camp's commanding officer -- known as the mayor -- said some 10,000 soldiers had come through Camp Udairi in the past five days. Most, like the 101st, are bound for other outposts or front-line positions at the Iraqi border, but 5,000 to 10,000 soldiers are staying there at any one time.
Most of the 101st Airborne Division's equipment, including Humvees, artillery and many of its 270 helicopters, has not arrived yet. DISCOM, too, is without some computer systems and the supplies passes to the troops.
To beat the boredom and keep their soldiers sharp, officers say they will spend the next week honing survival and basic skills: weapons training, land navigation, first-aid and the like.
Sgt. 1st Class Brandon Hughes, a platoon leader in the 101st Airborne's military police corps, had turned down other assignments in hopes of being deployed to Iraq. The waiting has been hard.
"We're ready to go," Hughes said. "You really don't want to get shot at, and there's a little bit higher cause now. It's not Desert Storm two, it's not the revenge of Bush senior. It's just to prevent any future possible attacks."