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.