U.S. troops at the front primed for action
Troops, soldiers and pilots throughout Kuwait and the Persian Gulf expressed surprise, and relief, that Operation Iraqi Freedom has finally begun.
Some didn’t even know that operations had started until hours after the opening volley, while others were disappointed that they weren’t part of the first attack.
But on the Yokosuka, Japan- based USS Cowpens, sailors got bragging rights that they were aboard the first ship in the Gulf to launch missiles toward Iraq.
The guided-missile cruiser — part of the USS Kitty Hawk carrier battle group — fired 10 Tomahawk attack missiles against military targets, said Lt. Cmdr. Mike Brown, battle group spokesman.
Also launching Tomahawks from the Gulf were two destroyers — the USS Donald Cook and USS Milius — and another cruiser, the USS Bunker Hill. More than 40 Tomahawks were fired from the Gulf, as well as from the Mediterranean and Red seas, Brown said.
“This was short notice,” Brown said. “They had less than 35 minutes from notice to firing their first [Tomahawk].”
About 400 sailors are on the Cowpens, which is always within a few miles of the aircraft carrier.
As President Bush came on the air at 5:30 a.m. local time in the Gulf, sailors on the Kitty Hawk were busy doing an underway fuel replenishment.
Throughout the day, however, televisions around the ship were tuned to news channels.
“I wish the Kitty Hawk was party of it,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Kevin Thornton, echoing many sailors’ sentiments as he made security rounds.
On Wednesday, pilots with Carrier Air Wing 5 on the Kitty Hawk dropped their first ordnance of this deployment in support of Operation Southern Watch.
While some sailors hurried purposefully through the passageways, others went about work as usual, painting doors and sweeping hallways. Sailors working on the bow catapult rested a bit before a long night’s work Thursday, discussing the latest news.
“It was expected,” said Airman Dusty Glover, 20. “We’re a very important part of the Operation Iraqi Freedom, or whatever they’re calling it.”
For soldiers who have spent months in the Kuwaiti desert preparing and waiting for the war to start, news of Thursday morning’s strike was slow to reach them.
At Camp Udairi, the U.S. military post nearest the Iraqi border, few soldiers were even aware that the war had begun until after noon, when the first of several gas warnings were issued.
Horns beeped three times, and people shouted “Gas! Gas! Gas! Put on your masks!”
Troops kept their masks on for about 15 minutes before the all- clear was sounded. Three more alerts followed in the next three hours, and jitters gave way to anger.
Because different units answer to different commands, warnings and all-clears came at different times on different parts of the base, confusing some soldiers.
While many people lay quietly on their cots during the drills, the packing continued unabated.
Most of the troops at Udairi — including all but a skeleton crew from the Illesheim, Germany-based 11th Aviation Regiment units — will be crossing the border into Iraq soon. They dismantled tents, packing personal and Army gear into trucks and Humvees for the trip north.
Out on the flight line, Apache armament technicians and crew chiefs loaded ammunition and rockets aboard the attack helicopters. As during the fall 2001 attack on Afghanistan, soldiers scribbled messages on the Hellfire missiles and rockets.
“To Saddam, from Stephanie,” read one. “Betty Boop sends her love,” read another.
Some included Saddam’s name with obscenities and vulgarities.
Sgt. Quinton McNair, 25, a crew chief in the 2nd Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment, showed a wry humor on the rocket he signed.
“The U.S. bombed Iraq, but all they gave me was this crappy rocket,” he wrote.
At Camp New Jersey, soldiers packed up tents and loaded trucks and armored vehicles.
Troops attended religious services, bought last-minute items in the almost-empty post exchanges, made phone calls home and waited.
“Everyone’s nervous — it’s natural to be nervous,” said Sgt. Maj. Ray Lane of the 22nd Signal Brigade from Darmstadt, Germany. “If you’re not nervous, you’re a cowboy — and this is no time for cowboys.”
Taking a sip of coffee at V Corps headquarters at Camp New Jersey, which commands more than 50,000 soldiers, Lane said: “No soldier wants to kill unless he has to. So you have to.”
The sergeant major, who has served in the Army for 26 years, paused. “How many soldiers are we going to lose?”
Kendra Helmer is embedded with the USS Kitty Hawk carrier battle group, which is performing operations in the Persian Gulf. Steve Liewer is embedded with the 2nd Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment in the northern Kuwaiti desert. Contributing to this story: The Associated Press.