RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — Tanks from a 1st Infantry Division task force were deployed to northern Iraq late Monday night — the first M1A1 Abrams to be airlifted directly into a combat zone.
The 300-soldier Big Red One contingent will beef up the lightly armed paratroopers of the Italy-based 173rd Airborne Brigade, who jumped into northern Iraq on March 26. The paratroopers seized Bashur airfield in an area of northern Iraq controlled by allied Kurdish forces. Bashur is being used to bring in the heavier 1st ID combat units.
Sgt. 1st Class John Williamson and his crew of Abrams tankers knew they were about to make history as they loaded their 70-ton behemoth into the belly of a C-17 Globemaster at Ramstein on Monday afternoon.
“Our name says it all,” said Pfc. Scott Burke, pointing to the words “Excellent Choice” stenciled on the tank’s 120 mm gun tube.
The crew and tank became the first combat-loaded Abrams delivered directly into a combat zone, said Lt. Col. Ken Riddle, task force commander. It was also the only tank on the ground for the first day.
A sudden burst of foul weather shut the Bashur airfield down, causing follow-on flights to divert to other airfields outside Iraq or hold at Ramstein. By Tuesday morning, however, flights resumed.
Built around the Vilseck, Germany-based 1st Battalion, 63rd Armor Regiment, the task force is also the first combat deployment of U.S. Army Europe’s quick-reaction Immediate Ready Force.
Bradley fighting vehicles, M-113 armored personnel carriers and other gear also are slated to be flown into the combat zone, Riddle said.
“There are a lot of firsts with this deployment,” he said. “It is certainly quite an honor to be a part of it.”
In addition to Riddle’s tankers and battalion staff, the deployment also is lashing together several other 1st Infantry Division units, including:
Company B, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment.
1st Battalion, 6th Field Artillery Regiment.
201st Forward Support Battalion.
A contingent of Fort Drum, N.Y., 10th Mountain Division soldiers also are preparing to deploy in the coming days. Mostly from Battery C, 2nd Battalion, 15th Field Artillery Regiment, their Humvee-towed 105 mm cannons were stashed at Ramstein, ready for loading.
Riddle said his men and the 10th Mountain troops will fall under the command of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, led by Col. William Mayville.
Despite the weather delay, officials say it should take only about a week to complete the deployment, assuming the Air Force’s fleet of C-17s aren’t diverted to other priorities.
“It’s all just a matter of waiting on the airflow at this point,” Riddle said.
The 173rd Airborne soldiers are happy with their new camp mates.
“It’s nice to have the added firepower,” said Air Force Staff Sgt. Ryan Ziemer, a security forces officer from RAF Mildenhall, England. “It increases your comfort zone.”
More armored vehicles are due to arrive in the coming days as more elements of the 173rd Airborne Brigade prepare to move south to fight Iraqi forces.
“It’s like Christmas,” Ziemer said. “Every day you see new stuff in there [the airfield].”
Riddle’s battalion-sized effort is a far cry from the battle plan originally envisioned by war planners. Leaders had hoped to pour tens of thousands of troops into northern Iraq from Turkey in a pincer movement designed to attack Baghdad from the north and south.
The Turkish government, however, refused to allow ground troops into the country, leaving only an initial southern advance from Kuwait.
While the new northern front is only a shadow of what was planned, it is not an insignificant force, officials say.
“We’re bringing some pretty significant firepower with us,” Riddle said. “And we’re ready for whatever we need to do.”
Stars and Stripes reporter Kevin Dougherty contributed to this report.