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Dispatch from the 101st

Quiet ahead of the unknown

By WES ALLISON, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 27, 2003

WITH U.S. FORCES IN SOUTHERN IRAQ -- So this is how it is. Night is falling in the desert Wednesday, and the wind is still, and the dust has stopped swirling, and the air is finally free and cool. The soldiers are trying to rest, and trying to finish the tasks, as best they know how, that make them ready for the chaos to come.

Shaving to ensure their gas masks fit snugly.

Wiping the grime from their ears and eyes, giving their bodies a break from the weight of their flak jackets and chemical suits.

Cleaning and recleaning their guns in the fast-fading light, working the bolt, click-clatch, click-clatch, reloading their magazines, click-clatch, click-clatch. It is a comforting sound, audible testament to the only real control they will have during whatever greets them in the dark hours ahead: the ability to shoot back, and fast.

Army officials won't allow reporters to say where this element of the 327th Infantry of the 101st Airborne Division is, or where it is going, or even how it got here from Camp Pennsylvania in northern Kuwait. But for the most part the soldiers know, and for once there is no horseplay, only quiet talking.

The battalion chaplain, Capt. Scott Brown, makes his rounds. Brown used to pilot attack helicopters before he was called to this new role, and he knows firsthand what the soldiers may be feeling.

He advises each man to look out for the man next to him. He tells them he has been praying for them.

Some talk in small groups, reminding each other of their superior training and firepower. Others sit quietly with their cigarettes and their thoughts, trying not to think of home and the families waiting there.

The idea of not returning to them is most unnerving of all. For most it is worse, even, than actually dying.

Spc. Patrick Scrogin, 24, of Moberley, Mo., has some questions for his boss, Sgt. Maj. Richard Montcalm, 44, of Jacksonville. Montcalm is the highest-ranking enlisted man in the 2nd Battalion of the 327th Infantry. These are his troops he will lead to battle, and this will be Scrogin's first time.

He wants assurance that Delta Company, which provides the battalion's mightiest firepower, with its .50-caliber machine guns and antitank missiles, will be on the job.

"Are you worried about something?" Montcalm asks.

"I'm scared, sergeant major."

"It's healthy to be nervous," Montcalm says. "Scared is when you can't control your fear."

"I can control my fear. What I f----- up is I looked at the picture of my wife and kids."

Sgt. Shawn Scott, 34, of Piney Flats, Tenn., has been listening. He is Scrogin's friend.

"I know, and I'm not going to do it," Scott tells him. He served here during Desert Storm and he is very cool. "What's really bad is I miss my dogs, too."

"I miss my dogs, too," Scrogin says, "but I miss my Jeep more."

They steer the talk to dogs and cars. Lighter things, for a heavy night.

"I am going to get some rest, and I suggest you do the same," Montcalm says. He walks into the dark.

Scrogin speaks again. "I heard Delta Company was going to leave us if we stop."

Scott scuffs the sand. It is time to get some rest. They move out in three hours.

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