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COLUMN ONE

Ready and Raring to Go to War

The soldiers at Camp New York in Kuwait are saying, 'It looks like we're going to have to go through Baghdad before we go home. So let's go.'

March 04, 2003|John Hendren | Times Staff Writer

CAMP NEW YORK, Kuwait — "Black Hawk Bob" Gallagher is 10 miles from the Iraqi border, making one of the world's most expensive cups of coffee by dangling a metal cup over the searing exhaust of an Abrams tank that takes eight gallons of fuel to start.

He was, until recently, what his fellow tankers call a "snake eater," a light infantryman, who earned his nickname leading a platoon of elite Army Rangers through the bloody 1993 battle in Somalia retold in the book and movie "Black Hawk Down."

Now the Pentagon has handed him a new assignment. If Gallagher crosses the Iraqi frontier, this time he -- and much of the United States Army -- will roll in protected by Cold War-era heavy metal.

The conflict in Iraq envisioned by Pentagon war strategists is closer to the 1991 Persian Gulf War than to the nimble maneuvers of special operations forces in Somalia, Panama and Afghanistan. After months of internal debate within the Bush administration over invasion scenarios involving as few as 50,000 ground troops, Pentagon war planners have assembled 225,000 soldiers, arrayed in an arc around the regime of Saddam Hussein.

Poised at the vanguard is Gallagher's unit, the 2nd Brigade of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, from Ft. Stewart, Ga., whose tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles are poised to join in the first wave of ground forces to roll toward Baghdad. The brigade of 3,500 soldiers is known as the Army's "iron fist," the most heavily armed rapid deployment force in the world.

From an officer corps schooled in the broad art of battle to staff sergeants, corporals and privates, the brigade has formed the "tip of the spear" of American military might in the Persian Gulf since September, longer than any other American unit.

The "Spartan brigade," as it is called, is led by a cerebral and politically wired colonel and a cast of combat commanders who learned their way around southern Iraq during the Gulf War. This time, their contingency plans include a map whose route is summarized on the muzzle of an M-1A1 Abrams tank: "All the way to Baghdad."

The drive from Kuwait City to Camp New York is a 2 1/2-hour trek up the "highway of death" on which U.S. airstrikes targeted fleeing Iraqi soldiers in 1991, then through miles of powdery sand and past a lone tree that brigade members call "the Kuwaiti National Forest."

The drivers carve their own way, dodging kangaroo rats and scorpions on a dirt "road" that shifts with each rainstorm and gust of wind. Even regulars use four-wheel-drive and a compass. Past a well-guarded checkpoint is the place Army wags call "Lower Manhattan," an expanse of tents, trucks and camouflage-clad soldiers that blend together in a sun-parched haze of shades from tan to taupe.

Here, soldiers gear themselves up for war like NFL contenders headed toward the playoffs. The bravado is borne out on tents bearing names such as "The Assassins" and on tanks with slogans like "Call Your Chaplain."

The arrival of the brigade's parent 3rd division early this year, along with its companion 1st and 3rd brigades, has given the buildup a growing sense of inevitability, soldiers say. When the brigade's commander, Col. David Perkins, arrived with the small advance group in September, 1,700 soldiers were loosely sprinkled over the terrain of Camp New York. It is now packed with 3,500 soldiers and surrounded by 13,000 more in four neighboring camps -- New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Virginia.

The population explosion has strained scarce resources.

First to go each morning is the hot water, then the cold water. Several individual mess halls have been consolidated into three mammoth assembly-line dining tents, where the queues can jut 100 yards into the desert. Soldiers can pick up anything from toothpaste to DVD players at the PX, but the wait to get in is now two hours.

Driving to the camp often means falling in behind caravans of trucks bearing tanks, Bradleys and the provisions of war.

Almost no one expects to leave here without first heading "up north."

Few soldiers have a stronger background to gauge the political chatter in Washington than Perkins. When Newt Gingrich became the speaker of the House in 1995, the Army lent him Perkins -- then a young staff officer -- to organize the personnel in the speaker's office. Perkins sat in on high-level meetings for 18 months, including talks with then-President Clinton and Defense Secretary William J. Perry. When Gingrich, now a former congressman, visited the camp last month, he embraced Perkins as an old friend.

The 44-year-old Keene, N.H., native is a multi-tasking news junkie who leaves the Fox News- Channel running round-the-clock in his tent. Each report of diplomatic maneuvers that could delay the onset of war prompts groans from the aides who've pirated Perkins' cable line in a neighboring tent.

Slated to move to the Pentagon as a policy planner for the Joint Chiefs of Staff in June, Perkins muses, "My wife will probably have to move without me."

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