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Tradition Left in the Dust as Army Reinvents Itself

March 24, 2004|Esther Schrader | Times Staff Writer

Ft. Polk, La. — Flushed and sweating, Leonard Bentley is shaken.

The 21-year-old Army specialist has just watched six fellow soldiers fall to bullets from an unseen gun. He is being taunted in Arabic by an angry mob. Helicopters hum overhead, mortar fire is exploding around him, a turbanned kid has brazenly stolen his stores of food and water and his commander is nowhere to be seen.

"I feel exposed. We're always taught to seek cover. Here you're in the middle of the street, you have windows and doorways everywhere. You don't know what to do," the Dallas native says.

Just as Bentley was jolted by events in this simulated Middle Eastern city deep in the Louisiana woods, so was the entire U.S. Army after it rumbled into Iraq a year ago.

Last winter, soldiers getting ready for deployment to Iraq ran traditional drills. The Army was well-prepared for the charge that took it to Baghdad in less than three weeks. But after occupying the capital, the force found that it was considerably less suited to the job at hand: putting down an insurgency and rebuilding infrastructure.

So today, with insurgents' bombs shearing limbs off U.S. troops on a regular basis and no definitive end to the mission in sight, the Army is quickly reinventing itself. Defying its reputation for being recalcitrant and tradition-bound, the Army has begun the most ambitious restructuring in 50 years, radically reforming how it trains, equips, organizes and fights. Indeed, it has surpassed the Navy, the Air Force and the Marine Corps as a vanguard of change.

Thousands of tank specialists are being turned into military police. The division containing 10,000 to 20,000 soldiers -- the basic fighting unit for generations -- is being dispensed with in favor of smaller, more agile and self-sufficient brigades.

The Army has canceled a major traditional weapons system, the Comanche helicopter, and begun to thin its bureaucracy, moving many soldiers from desk jobs to fighting units. Soldiers who have lost limbs in the conflict are assigned to brief deploying soldiers on their experiences.

Army leaders have figured out how to learn from mistakes so quickly that the day after Iraqi insurgents began stringing bombs from overpasses to hit convoys, the people at the Army's National Training Center at Ft. Irwin, in the California desert, were stringing fake bombs from overpasses in a mock city.

"When I was a captain, battle training was very predictable," said Col. Robert Brown, standing outside a mock Iraqi city at Ft. Polk as the infantry brigade he commands -- the 1st Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division -- waged battle inside with Arabic-speaking role players.

"I used to know exactly what we would do in a training exercise six months in advance. It was like you were in a football game and you knew what plays your opponent was going to run. But now you get out on the field and the other team might play soccer, or it might play lacrosse, or it might cheat.

"Our Army trained for a checklist mentality," Brown added. "Now we can't rely on the checklist."

The demand for the Army to change its ways is happening amid extraordinary turmoil for the service. Facing an unrelenting need for troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, it has been forced to call up hundreds of thousands of reservists for active duty.

More than 100,000 U.S. troops are in Iraq, and even with the U.S. planning to return sovereignty to Iraqis at the end of June, tens of thousands are expected to remain there. Army officials warn that by the end of next year, they may be forced to mandate back-to-back deployments for 45,000 soldiers or more.

With the sands and heat of Iraq wreaking havoc on equipment, logistics experts are scouring bases worldwide for every available helicopter and Humvee. And every day, flights loaded with wounded soldiers leave Iraq for Army hospitals in the United States and abroad.

"There is no question that the pace of our nation at war challenges our Army. This state of war requires us to challenge old paradigms, to be flexible and adaptable," the Army's new chief of staff, Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, told the House Armed Services Committee this month.

Schoomaker, who remade himself from an artilleryman at the beginning of his Army career into a Special Forces commander, insists that the Army remake itself immediately instead of studying and analyzing options for years.

"Nothing so concentrates the mind as knowing you've got a war to fight, that if you don't make changes today it could hurt you down the road in what is likely to be a protracted conflict," said Andrew Krepinevich, a retired colonel who directs the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington. "Right now, the Army is playing in the big game."

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