FT. CAMPBELL, Ky. — From their first days as "Screaming Eagles," the 18,000 soldiers of the Army's 101st Airborne Division are taught to be ready for anything. As the force's proud creed goes: "First in, last out."
But at its sprawling home base — after a long year in Iraq that wreaked havoc with the blades of its helicopters, the sights of its guns and the nerves of its soldiers — the 101st is as far from ready as it has ever been.
Outside a gun locker the other day, a soldier used a bristled brush to scrape out Iraqi sand lodged in the seams of his rucksack. In the motor pool, mechanics pulled the transmission from a bomb-battered Humvee. At a social worker's office, a soldier ticked off the names of buddies he had watched die and mourned the breakup of his romance back home.
The 101st has no choice but to fix itself. And fast. With Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld saying this week that the U.S. military presence in Iraq will stand at 135,000 troops for the foreseeable future, the Pentagon must prepare these soldiers to return to the fight.
What the 101st is going through is a microcosm of what lies ahead for the entire Army. Iraq is its biggest test since Vietnam, and the rigors of fighting a counterinsurgency have demolished much of the Army's equipment and allowed its soldiers' skills to atrophy. For the first time, three Army divisions — more than a third of its combat troops — are classified as unfit to fight.
This is a new experience for the Army. In World War II, conscript troops fought for the duration and came home to stay. In Vietnam, soldiers drafted for two-year stretches met up with units already in combat. In Iraq, a volunteer Army that for decades has been largely a peacetime force is being asked to fight hard for a year or more, come home, and gear up to go back again, with no end in sight.
"We have never had the need for a huge Army to stay engaged like we are now," said Col. Michael Linnington, who commands the 3,400 soldiers of the 101st Airborne's 3rd Brigade. "Today if you're an active-duty unit, either you're going be in Iraq, or you're going be preparing to go back to Iraq. That's the way it's going to be."
Along with the 101st, the 82nd Airborne, which returned to Ft. Bragg, N.C., in March, and the 4th Infantry Division, whose soldiers still are returning to Ft. Hood, Texas, and Ft. Carson, Colo., came back from Iraq at readiness levels that the Army says left them unfit. Another division that had been due to return home this spring, the 1st Armored, was ordered in April to stay in Iraq at least three more months. When the 1st Armored does come home, it will likely be in the same shape.
Here on the base straddling the Kentucky-Tennessee border, the 101st has been given more than $100 million, and six months, to get into fighting form.
It is an irony of war, especially the kind being waged in Iraq, that fighting does not necessarily make you stronger. Units like the 101st train for years to attain peak form — every soldier a strong marksman, every chopper ready to fly — then watch skills fall victim to long hours of waiting and watching for the enemy's next move, living in dust and sand, feeling the triggers of their guns jam and their truck tires wear thin.
In Iraq, that problem has been compounded by the fact that divisions are not always fighting as they were trained to. Tank squads have been driving Humvees. Artillerymen have become military police. The 101st, which gained fame in World War II and Vietnam for parachuting behind enemy lines, spent much of its time in Iraq tracking snipers, avoiding roadside bombs and manning checkpoints.
But in order to be judged as fit for combat, the 101st and other returning divisions must restore themselves to readiness in every aspect of their potential mission — even those that aren't required in Iraq.
That means working through a checklist that includes everything from ensuring its soldiers are outfitted with the proper number of chemical protective outfits to verifying that enough of its soldiers can run a speedy mile. On parking lots throughout Ft. Campbell, soldiers have laid out the long strings of parachutes to make sure every one is free from knots. Inside the base gymnasium, they practice wrestling holds to prove themselves capable of hand-to-hand combat.
The bulk of the division's troops returned here in February; 58 of their comrades died in Iraq; 387 were wounded. Their equipment, transported on seven ships from Kuwait to Jacksonville, Fla., is still arriving at Ft. Campbell by the trainload.
As they undertake the task of restoring themselves to fighting form, perhaps the biggest unknown for the soldiers of the 101st is how they will emerge from the war experience — and how their lives and struggles at home will affect their ability to get back into shape.
The 101st and the other two divisions returned with a total of 1,000 aircraft, 124,000 communications and electronics systems, 5,700 tracked vehicles, 45,700 wheeled vehicles, 1,400 missile systems and more than 232,000 other weapons. Most were jammed with sand, burned out from extended use in desert heat or otherwise in need of repair.
The Pentagon has budgeted $4 billion just to get the Army's smaller equipment in working order. That doesn't include the cost of repairing helicopters and other large weapons systems. The funds budgeted in fiscal 2004 for what the Army calls the reset "cover only known losses at this point, and we expect that they will grow as operations continue," Gen. George W. Casey, the Army's vice chief of staff, warned the readiness subcommittee of the House Armed Service Committee.
"We also predict that, as we inspect and repair equipment, the number of items cataloged as uneconomically repairable will increase," he said during testimony in March.
At Ft. Campbell, Linnington insisted that were it not for the sorry state of the equipment, his troops could go back to Iraq tomorrow. But, he said, "it would be painful, really painful."
One recent day, Linnington and his battalion leaders watched a presentation on the division's status. On a screen flashed a chart that laid out the basic skills required of infantrymen — from the ability to run six miles carrying a 50-pound load to marksmanship. A green circle next to each category denoted battalions whose soldiers had proved themselves ready.
"I want to understand why I'm not seeing much green here," Linnington said.
On parking lots throughout the base, soldiers have laid out row upon row of guns, chemical masks, medical kits and small arms — each pulled out of containers to be meticulously checked and inventoried.
In the motor pools, missile-equipped combat vehicles, each driven more than 30,000 miles in Iraq, are getting windshields made of thicker glass. Boxes loaded with new fuel tanks, wiper blades and engines are stacked against the walls. The scope of the work is so overwhelming that division leaders hired 45 civilian mechanics to help out.
There are so many helicopters in need of work that the Army has parceled out the effort among several bases, supply depots and civilian contractors. Chief among the tasks is replacing fiberglass blades that Army aviation mechanics had been protecting from the abrasive Iraqi sand by covering them with duct tape.
In World War II, the Army more often than not left behind vehicles pounded in battle. Troops stationed in Europe today use the wreckage for target practice. In Iraq, everything that could be salvaged and brought back has been — including trucks and Humvees with bullet holes and bomb damage.
"The stuff we brought back from Iraq, we worked it really hard," said Brig. Gen. Jeff Schloesser, assistant division commander for support.
Rebuilding equipment, however, is a more straightforward matter than determining how best to train troops to survive in Iraq, or wherever the next fight may be.
The 101st, like most Army divisions, is trained to excel in a very specific set of skills — in this case, launching assaults from helicopters and landing an infantry force in a hostile environment.
"Let me put it this way," Linnington said, "we weren't doing much air assault in Iraq."
During the day, its soldiers were harvesting wheat, organizing city council elections, building schools and acting as a security force. At night, they launched raids on enemies and their weapons caches.
"The skill sets that the soldiers are being asked to train to are different than those required in a situation like Iraq," said Dan Goure, a military analyst with the nonpartisan Lexington Institute, a Virginia-based public policy group.
For now, the 101st is honing its core skills. "Being out there for that long, it was hard to keep skills up," said Lt. Col. Christopher Pease, breathing hard after a wrestling session. "We had guys hiring Iraqis to make them homemade barbells. There are certain things you learn on a deployment. But at a certain point
you're no longer effective."
In addition to training, there are matters to be dealt with at home, as officers and soldiers struggle to patch up their personal lives. For two-thirds of the fighting force, Iraq was their first combat. The average age of the soldiers was 21.
It's hard to find a returning soldier who doesn't jump at loud noises or have trouble sleeping. Memories of battle deaths are vivid, and divorce is rampant.
"Some guys I talk to, they wish they'd never come home," said Sgt. Albert Blair, 32; he and his wife have been in marriage counseling.
"We're having communication problems," he said. "She wants to know it all. 'Did you shoot anyone? Did you see anyone die?' I don't want to talk about that stuff. I want to act like it didn't exist."
The Army is doing what it can to help, offering soldiers classes in everything from how to drive safely — most have not been behind the wheel of a car for a year — to how to reconnect with their children. Before the soldiers left Iraq, they filled out forms that asked, among other things, "Are you currently having thoughts of (circle all that apply) suicide, death or harming others?"
Commanders are sending their soldiers home early and awarding days off with regularity. Battalion leaders are giving ample notice if troops will be asked to train or work at night. Dances and other social events are planned for soldiers and their families.
For one 22-year-old from Ohio who got married three months before he left for Iraq, a family barely formed has come apart. Spc. Tony Wickline's wife gave birth to their baby girl, Harley, while he was away. The couple split up when Wickline got back. She took Harley with her to Ohio.
"I got to play with her a little, just a little. I didn't get to see her born," Wickline said, tears in his eyes. "Now she's gone."
There are career and financial issues too. Over beers bought by Linnington at the base's golf clubhouse, dozens of senior officers talked about what going back to Iraq might mean for their careers — whether one will be able to complete the fellowship he was planning, whether another will be able to go to air assault school when he wants.
Some soldiers are flush with the combat pay they got in Iraq. New trucks are everywhere around Ft. Campbell. So are motorcycles — many bought online before the troops got home.
Others, however, have gone through the money or are in debt because they were unable to manage their finances or pay bills while they were away.
Wickline totaled his truck — an old one — a week after he got back. With his marriage at an end, he moved into the barracks. Since February, he said, he has lost 50 pounds. Like the soldiers around him, he gets up at 6:30 every morning to work out and begin his days of training himself and refurbishing his gear.
He is resigned to going back to Iraq.
"I joined [the Army] because I wanted to make sure I could make a future for a family I hoped to have, which I got, and then I lost," he said.
And even if he won't get to raise his daughter, Wickline said, "At least my little girl will grow up knowing Daddy was a part of history."
Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times