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Battle Behind Them, 4 Soldiers Push Ahead With Life

Hailed after the Gulf War's Battle of 73 Easting, '2/2' men struggle, flourish, hunger for more or wish they'd never gone.

June 08, 2003|Michael Luo | Associated Press Writer

After the horror of war, some soldiers confront a purgatory of nagging memories and uncertainty. As troops return home from the war that ousted Saddam Hussein, the Associated Press looked at one unit from the Persian Gulf War and how a few of its members have adjusted in the last dozen years.

The four men shared a unit: the "2/2" -- the U.S. Army's 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment's 2nd Squadron.

They also shared a date: Feb. 26, 1991, Day Three of the ground campaign in the Gulf War.

Together, they fought a furious armored cavalry clash deep in the desert that devastated the Iraqi enemy and is studied closely in military circles today: the Battle of 73 Easting.

But when it was over and the four went their separate ways, their experiences were not shared but varied -- and that may suggest what awaits a new group of soldiers returning from combat in Iraq. Like the troops of 2/2, some will struggle, some will flourish; some will hunger to go back, some will wish that they'd never gone.

*

First Lt. John Mecca, 25, a loud, rambunctious New Jersey native, spent the early morning hours of Feb. 23, 1991, curled up on the floor of his Bradley turret reciting the Hail Mary. G-day wasn't for another 24 hours, but the 2nd Squadron was going in early.

Mecca was the executive officer of 2/2's Ghost Troop and soon would be leading 120 men into combat for the first time.

Ghost, along with Fox and Eagle, were the squadron's cavalry units, equipped with M1 Abrams tanks and lighter, more mobile Bradley Fighting Vehicles. They would meet the enemy first.

Among those also steeling themselves were 1st Lt. John Hillen, Mecca's closest friend and assistant to the squadron's operational commander; Sgt. Russell Holloway, the gunner in Hillen's Bradley, and Sgt. Rodney Abercrombie, a gung-ho tanker from Georgia.

They crossed the berm that afternoon and sped north across the desert, at first encountering little resistance.

On the second day, a group of Iraqis scurried from cover and Holloway fired. He remembers watching through his thermal sight as an armor-piercing round struck one soldier. The man's foot exploded in a puff of pink.

Holloway, 22, was an atypical soldier. Yes, he could be foul-mouthed and belligerent, but he also wrote poetry. He'd enlisted after losing his football scholarship in Kansas. He and Hillen idled away time talking books and politics.

Hillen, 25, was also unusual. The son of a Vietnam veteran, he saw himself as carrying on a warrior tradition, but he also won a Fulbright scholarship his senior year at Duke. His goal was to become assistant secretary of defense.

For now, his job was to work the map board and radios in the Bradley, turning tactics into orders.

Around 4 p.m. Feb. 26, forward scouts began picking up heat signatures. The blowing sand made it hard to see. Abercrombie, manning a machine gun in his tank, sprayed a truck 150 yards ahead. Holloway's Bradley roared up on the left and fired a TOW missile.

They had run straight into the Tawakalna Division of Iraq's Republican Guard, Saddam Hussein's best.

The U.S. military uses north-south grid lines, called eastings, to fix locations. As Hillen reported their progress, regimental commanders ordered 2/2 to go no further than the 70 Easting.

But the troopers rumbled ahead, blasting away. Holloway fired into an armored personnel carrier; Abercrombie riddled four soldiers sprawled in the sand.

By the time Eagle halted at the 73.8 Easting, the squadron had destroyed a brigade's worth of armored vehicles in less than half an hour: 30 tanks, 16 BMP infantry fighting vehicles and 39 trucks.

As dusk settled in and Holloway and Abercrombie scanned for fresh targets, the burning carcasses of Iraqi vehicles littered the desert.

But it wasn't over. The Tawakalna counterattack came directly at Ghost, sitting to Eagle's north. For more than an hour, Mecca and his gunner fired furiously.

About 5:40 p.m., word came that the gunner in "Ghost 1-6" was dead. The casualty was Sgt. Andy Moller from Idaho. Holloway, a friend, resolved to show no mercy. When an Iraqi personnel carrier disgorged a group of infantry, he cut down one soldier, then picked off the next two as they got up to run.

By 9:30 p.m., it was over.

The next day, a cease-fire was declared. Hillen and Mecca were awarded Bronze Stars. Holloway and Abercrombie got Army Commendation Medals with V-device for valor.

The Battle of 73 Easting, as it was later called, became a much-studied engagement -- a textbook case of battlefield initiative.

The men of 2/2 were hailed as heroes.

*

But after heroic combat, after war is over, then what?

Still in the Army but now stationed in Germany, the two sergeants, Holloway and Abercrombie, became roommates and best friends. The war ended Abercrombie's marriage, and he hit the pubs nightly, dragging Holloway along whenever he could. But a transfer to a support unit that Abercrombie had requested before the war, trying to save his marriage, finally went through.

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