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Dispatch from the 101st

Mask, gun: check. Bullets: not so fast.

By WES ALLISON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 13, 2003
Dispatch from the 101st

photoTimes staff writer Wes Allison has been attached to the 101st Airborne Division. He is living and traveling with the troops as they are deployed abroad.

Reports from a region in conflict

CAMP UDAIRI, Kuwait -- This may surprise the folks back home, but the U.S. Army forces massing across the Iraqi border are largely unarmed.

Even though all U.S. soldiers deployed to the six main Army camps in northern Kuwait must carry their rifles at all times -- even to the latrine in the middle of the night -- few are carrying any bullets.

This is not an oversight, or a lame-brained cost-saving measure ordered by the Pentagon, or an indication that American military leaders believe they can take Iraq without firing a shot.

Rather, it's an effort to stave off the sad inevitable: Once the Army starts issuing ammo en masse, soldiers will accidentally shoot themselves and each other.

Those who served in Afghanistan, Desert Storm and other conflicts can attest to it.

At Wednesday's morning briefing at Camp Udairi, American leaders were told that four soldiers in the British sector were injured when one of their rifles accidentally discharged.

Last week, a U.S. Marine was shot in the neck by an officer who was cleaning his pistol in another tent. He survived but required major surgery, doctors said.

Officers say the safety risk far outweighs the security risk.

"We may be rolling the dice, but I can guarantee that you're not going to have any large forces rolling across the border and over-running our camp," said Maj. Spencer Smith, a logistics coordinator for the 101st Airborne Division.

In the meantime, the soldiers patrolling the perimeter and the sentinels have all the rounds they could ever need. The Apache and Black Hawk helicopters patrolling the skies above the camps can quickly bring a hellstorm of cannon and missile fire on any approaching enemy, and Patriot missile batteries stand ready to shoot down any Iraqi Scud missiles.

Smith and others couldn't recall a combat deployment where the bulk of troops remained without bullets for so long. Some got here in December, although most of the 101st Airborne arrived about 10 days ago.

Many soldiers say they feel silly carrying empty guns.

"If something kicks up, we're s--- out of luck," said Pfc. Jessica Ruth, 19, of Florence, S.C., supply clerk in the Division Supply Command of the 101st Airborne.

At the same time, she said, "I don't feel comfortable with (ammo) because we got some careless people around here."

On base, it's easy to tell which soldiers are ready for ammunition. Infantrymen -- who have been given some bullets -- and former infantrymen wield their weapons as deftly as a chef handles a knife and saute pan. The M-4 rifle is the tool of their trade, and they practice with it for hours a day. It is an extension of themselves.

[Times photo: John Pendygraft]
A team of Marines turns CH-46 helicopters over to the night crew at sunset in Northern Kuwait.

But even in the Airborne, the famously aggressive combat unit from Fort Campbell, Ky., and in the 3rd Infantry Division of Fort Stewart, Ga., many support personnel lack that fluidity and comfort with guns.

For some, the rifle is like a third arm, awkward and heavy and forever in the way. They drop it, or leave it behind, or use it as a tool.

They lean it against a cot or a tent post, then knock it over, sending it clattering to the plywood tent floor. They forget about it when they turn around in the tent, bonking their buddies with the barrel or butt.

Early this week, a private was reprimanded for using her gun barrel as a pry bar while she was assembling the aluminum frame of cot.

"No, no, no," her sergeant barked. "What are you thinking?"

In Afghanistan, medics with the 101st Airborne treated three soldiers who were inadvertently shot by their friends, including an engineer who lost the lower half of one leg, said Sgt. 1st Class Jesse Carabajal, 39, a senior medic who deployed to Afghanistan, and is now serving in Kuwait.

One night as Carabajal and other medics lounged in their tent, a bullet whizzed through the canvas and struck a center support poll, then ricocheted through the roof. A soldier in the tent next door had fired his gun accidentally while cleaning it.

The M-4 rifle that is the standard weapon of the U.S. Army soldier these days is a shorter, lighter, more maneuverable version of the M-16. It carries a magazine with 30 5.56-millimeter rounds.

Officers also carry 9mm pistols, and each squad has an M-249 machine gun. Many infantry platoons carry a heavier M-60 machine gun as well.

Accidental discharges, as the Army calls them, typically occur in a war zone while a soldier is cleaning an M-4 or a pistol, or while "clearing" it -- that is, removing the magazine, emptying the chamber and pulling the trigger.

Each day, every soldier must disassemble the firing mechanism -- including the bolt, the firing pin and a large spring -- and wipe out the grime inside.

This keeps the gun firing smoothly, and is especially important in the desert, where sand and dust infiltrate every moving part. After cleaning and reassembling the gun, the soldier then must pull the trigger, listening for the comforting "click" of the firing pin.

Only then should the soldier re-insert the magazine. Unfortunately, soldiers sometimes confuse the steps, and insert the magazine before they check the trigger, Carabajal said.

"I'm scared, like everybody else, of getting shot accidentally by another soldier," Carabajal said. "It happens. Hopefully it won't, but it's happened everywhere we've gone."

Meanwhile, U.S. troops at Udairi on Wednesday received an unwelcome order: They must now wear "full battle rattle," minus the Kevlar flak vests, whenever they leave the tents.

That means carrying gas mask, biochemical protective suit and weapons, and wearing helmet and the heavy load-bearing vest, where most soldiers carry essential battle items such as canteens, a compass, and pressure dressing.

And ammunition, if they had any.

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