Getting Ready for Iraq

The Post-Standard (Syracuse, NY)

February 23, 2003 Sunday



BYLINE: By Greg Munno Staff writer


LENGTH: 983 words

Baby-faced troops crowded around Army Specialist Chris Izzo as he inserted an IV tube into an eager volunteer. Izzo barked questions about the procedure, and the troops barked back, without delay, the correct answers.

“It isn’t always like this, but it has been recently,” Izzo said. “Usually I have at least a couple of guys sleeping.” 

The soldiers in the combat lifesaver course all give the same reason for paying attention: War is upon them.

Here, among the soldiers who would do the fighting, the possibility of war with Iraq has lent a grave reality to preparations at Fort Drum.

The snowswept base is the home of the 10th Mountain Division, the most deployed military force in the United States during the last decade. About

1,000 soldiers from the 10th have already left for assignments to U.S.

Central Command, which would lead any war against Iraq, or have received deployment orders and will leave soon.

That includes the soldiers in the lifesaver course, members of the 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment.

“We aren’t doing anything too fancy right now,” said Major Tom Christensen, who oversees training for the 31st Infantry. “We want to make sure everyone has the basics down. Can they shoot? Are they proficient in the use of their gas masks and protective clothing? Can they keep their buddy alive until the medics get to him?

“Those are the types of things we are focusing on now.”

The attention to basics is particularly important since the base is full of inexperienced soldiers.

“Many of my men just recently got back from Afghanistan, but others just got here a couple of weeks ago, fresh out of basic training,” said Capt. Scott Austin, also with the 31st. “A lot of times, a soldier leaves and we stay down a few men for a while.”

Now his unit is full, Austin said, another sign they’ll ship out soon.

The frigid weather on the base, 70 miles north of Syracuse, is markedly different from what the troops will find in the Middle East. That doesn’t worry Brig. Gen. Eric F. Smith, Fort Drum’s second in command.

“The key for us is physical fitness,” Smith said. “If you are in good shape and healthy, you’ll do fine in both the cold and the heat.”

He said the 10th Mountain Division’s training program focuses on “skill, will and teamwork,” the three things the soldiers will need to fight and win regardless of conditions.

As some members of the 31st Infantry took the lifesaver course, the regiment’s Charlie Company was out at Range 33 with Capt. Austin. Several drills were set up at the desolate, windswept site. One had the soldiers start with their backs to three colored targets.

“Left turn – blue!” shouted a sergeant, and the soldiers pivoted, quickly picked out the blue target, aimed and fired their M-4 assault rifles. Behind the targets, A-10 Warthogs roared through the sky, banking and turning sharply as they practiced maneuvers.

In a nearby structure, groups of four soldiers took turns entering a room, rehearsing the most effective, safe way to clear a building.

“You want them to move in a decisive but controlled manner inside a building,” explained Lt. Scott Smith of Alexandria Bay, a 15-year military veteran. “Outside a building – the most dangerous place to be – the safest thing to do is move quickly. But inside, pacing is important.”

The soldiers practice pacing and examine angles in the rooms. They know a war to topple Saddam Hussein could mean building-to-building combat in Baghdad.

On the range and in the lifesaver course, the soldiers said they have few doubts about deploying to fight a war in Iraq. They say they trust their training and equipment and commanding officers. The protests against the war don’t bother them: They have a job to do and they’ll do it.

“My personal opinion is that I don’t really care what they think. It is not going to change how I go about my duty,” said Spc. William T. York of Georgia.

York, who served in Afghanistan, said most of the soldiers in his company, particularly the rookies, are eager to go.

“They’ve been trained to fight and they want to use it,” York said.

Still, there’s anxiety about going halfway around the world to fight a war.

Fort Drum is also the primary mobilization station for the Army in the Northeast, and the base is crowded with reservists and National Guard units, many honing battle skills they hoped never to use. Today, their loved ones left behind, members of the 747th National Guard unit from Massachusetts planned to board planes and departed for points unknown.

“I went to a deployment ceremony the other day for soldiers who were shipping out and saw the tension in some of their faces, particularly the ones with families,” a soldier who did not want his name used said Thursday. “Then I got home and my wife had been watching the deployment on television. It upset her. She said, “I know you are going to have to go, too.”‘

Austin – a sturdy 34-year-old with a kind smile and Ranger and Special Forces badges on his uniform – said he gets lots of questions from the new soldiers. Many, he said, are hard to answer.

“Most want to know when we are leaving, and all I can say is “soon,”‘ Austin said. “And the wives all want to know when we are coming back. I don’t want to tell them three months, because it might be six. And I don’t want to tell them a year, because that won’t make them feel any better.”

Gen. Smith said commanders tried not to select the same soldiers who went to Afghanistan for early deployment to the Middle East, but that it wasn’t always possible.

“The firefighters and military police units we have are in constant demand,” he said.

Still, Smith said, he’s not worried about the soldiers who will have to handle a second dangerous mission on the heels of Afghanistan.

“This is the Army,” he said. “No one came into the Army to sit around. You don’t build a ship to leave it in port.”


  Frank Ordonez/Staff photographer; FORT DRUM soldiers enter a room during an urban terrain exercise Tuesday.

“We want to make sure everyone has the basics down,” said Maj. Tom Christensen, who oversees training. “Can they shoot? Are they proficient in the use of their gas masks … Can they keep their buddy alive until the medics get to him?” Color;

Frank Ordonez/Staff photographer; SGT. GILL DEMARE of the 4th Battalion 31st Infantry reaches for a magazine during a shooting exercise at Fort Drum near Watertown Tuesday. Demare is from Roanoke, Va.

The attention to basics is important because many of the soldiers at Fort Drum are new to the Army, said Capt. Scott Austin. “Many of my men just recently got back from Afghanistan, but others just got here a couple of weeks ago, fresh out of basic training,” he said. Color;

Frank Ordonez/Staff photographer; SGT. FRANK TORRES prepares to turn and fire his rifle during a rapid reaction drill. The frigid weather on the base is a far cry from what the troops would find in the Middle East.

“If you are in good shape and healthy, you’ll do fine in both the cold and the heat,” said Brig. Gen. Eric F. Smith. Color;

Frank Ordonez/Staff photographer; STAFF SGT.Benjamin Locke demonstrates the procedure for entering and clearing a room. The 10th Mountain Division has been the most deployed U.S. military force in the past decade. Color;

MAP: Well traveled. The Post-Standard. Color;

GRAPHIC: About the 10th Mountain Division;

– The 10th Mountain Division, created during World War II, has been based at Fort Drum since 1985. Parts of the area that now comprise Fort Drum have been used for military purposes since 1908.;

– About 10,500 soldiers are assigned to Fort Drum.;

– About 1,000 soldiers have deployed or are deploying to undisclosed points in Asia or the Middle East and will be under U.S. Central Command, which would coordinate an attack on Iraq.;

– Division troops are trained to fight in jungles, deserts, cities and mountains.;

– The division shoulder patch depicts crossed red bayonets inside a blue powder keg, a symbol of their expertise with explosives. Color.; The Post-Standard.

Copyright 2003 Post-Standard, All Rights Reserved.

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