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WAR WITH IRAQ

Trained to the Hilt With Nowhere to Go

Blocked by Turkey from entering Iraq, stateside GIs are only now leaving ski slopes for Kuwait.

March 27, 2003|Eric Slater | Times Staff Writer

Ft. CARSON, Colo. — The Army's 4th Infantry Division was supposed to be charging south right now, out of Turkey and toward Baghdad.

It was to be the first Army division to arrive at the Iraqi capital, armed with the most technologically advanced mechanized equipment in the military.

Instead, many soldiers here have taken advantage of the biggest blizzard in nearly a century and gone skiing, repeatedly. At Ft. Hood, Texas, where the rest of the division is based, the golf course greens are a bit hard and dry, but eminently playable. Some soldiers have been getting in three or four rounds a week.

Nearly two months after soldiers of the 4th were first told they'd be going to war, the Pentagon announced Wednesday that they're finally moving out. They are to begin leaving this week, bound not for Turkey but for Kuwait.

For many, the news was almost a relief. As their comrades in the less high-tech 3rd Infantry Division have been fighting their way north toward Baghdad, the soldiers of Iron Horse, as the division is known, have been saddled up and waiting, impatiently.

"I have friends over there fighting a war, friends in the Army, the Marines. We're sitting here drinking beer," said Lt. Brian Caplin one recent night as he hoisted a 4-foot-tall tube-like glass of Bud Lite. "Weird."

Military strategists had big plans for the 4th, the "digitized division." It was supposed to deploy to Turkey and race toward Baghdad from the north, confronting Iraqi troops with a two-front war as other units advanced from the south.

On March 1, however, Turkey's parliament voted not to allow U.S. troops to launch a campaign from the nation's soil, and the division had been in a holding pattern ever since.

With their hundreds of tons of Paladin mobile artillery guns, M-1A1 Abrams tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, and Multiple Launch Rocket Systems floating about the Mediterranean Sea and Persian Gulf aboard 30 ships, the division's soldiers have almost no equipment left to train with.

The 3rd Battalion, 29th Field Artillery unit here tried unsuccessfully to borrow some old howitzers from the Colorado National Guard just to have guns to shoot. Officers who usually travel about the base's 137,000 acres by Humvee have taken to driving their personal minivans.

Having planned to go in from the mountainous, forested north, the 16,700 Iron Horse soldiers are outfitted with so-called woodland green camouflage fatigues. The unit is scrambling now to find 33,400 sets of desert camouflage uniforms -- two per soldier -- for the sands of Kuwait and southern Iraq.

With the soldiers here on call for nearly two months now, commanders have struggled to keep them occupied. Bored soldiers, they know, have an uncommon knack for finding trouble.

"We're trying to keep them busy, keep them on the edge, keep them from getting bored," said Maj. Craig Aaron, the executive officer of the battalion. "But that's difficult when you don't have any of your equipment. You've got to be creative."

In addition to giving their troops several long weekends off, commanders have organized movie nights at the post chapel, run and re-run chemical attack drills, and staged relatively safe sports events of the kind few soldiers find fun -- things like team sit-up competitions and races to the top of a 700-foot hill.

Jason Wells, a 23-year-old intelligence sergeant, headed for Denver over the weekend to take in a national wrestling tournament. He drank some beer. He went fishing.

"It's so strange," Wells said. "These guys are over there kicking butt, and we're watching it on TV. A part of you does want to go, but another part doesn't. Bad things happen in war."

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