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AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy — The 173rd Airborne Brigade added a few more lines to airborne history Wednesday, landing in Iraq after one of the largest infantry combat jumps since the Korean War.

About 1,000 soldiers from the Vicenza, Italy-based Southern European Task Force (Airborne) took off Wednesday afternoon and jumped into Iraq less than five hours later under the cover of darkness.

SETAF officials at Aviano refused to discuss the unit’s mission. The Associated Press reported that the brigade secured an airstrip in Northern Iraq, to allow more U.S. forces to land in the area, effectively establishing a front in the north of the country.

The area is under the control of lightly armed Kurdish forces opposed to the Iraqi regime and little or no opposition was expected. But brigade leaders said they were ready for anything.

“This is exactly the kind of mission we’ve trained for,” said Col. Bill Mayville, the brigade commander, a short time before boarding a waiting C-17 transport plane. “We’re ready.”

Some might say the brigade has been ready for weeks. There were several erroneous reports in the media over the past week stating the brigade was already operating in Iraq. Several of those reports said the brigade had as many as 5,000 personnel.

Mayville, who commands a contingent of about 1,800 troops, said he hasn’t been paying attention. And he shrugged off the exaggerations.

“Each one of these paratroopers is the equivalent of 10 to 15 normal humans,” he said with a large smile.

Mayville, who jumped into Panama in 1989 with a Ranger battalion, was the first one out the door over Iraq when the planes started disgorging paratroops.

Command Sgt. Major William Gunter was on his heels.

Many of those who followed them have never been in real mass attack. And even among those who did have a patch on their right sleeve, very few wore combat jump wings.

That’s not the case for 1st Sgt. Tony Mendoza, a Gulf War veteran who also jumped into Panama. He’s the top enlisted member in Company A, 1st Battalion, 508th Infantry Regiment.

“War is not fun,” he said Wednesday. “But we have a job to do. When our commander in chief gives an order, it’s our job to execute it.”

And they were going to do that thanks to a big lift from the C-17s. The planes are based at Charleston Air Force Base, S.C., and McChord Air Force Base in Washington.

“The last 10 years, we’ve been everywhere,” said Master Sgt. Ted Kibure, a member of one of the five-member crews from Charleston. Operation Desert Storm, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Afghanistan are just a few of the locations he listed. But none of those missions involved so many airborne troops.

“This is huge,” Gunter said. “There’s a lot of history to be made here.”

The brigade, which was reactivated in Vicenza in 2000, hasn’t fought a battle in decades.

“We’re hoping the herd here can do as well as the old herd did in Vietnam,” Gunter said.

Both the 1-508th and the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment — the two battalions that make up the brigade along with specialty and command companies — have long histories of their own.

The 2-503rd has been cited as making the first combat parachute jump in Army history on Nov. 8, 1942, in North Africa. And it was the only Army battalion to jump in Vietnam when 800 men were dropped in two sorties in February 1967.

One of those looking forward to adding his name to the history books was Sgt. William Hutson, a member of Company A from the 508th.

“I’m pretty excited,” he said. “It’s been hard just waiting for it to happen.”

Sgt. Edwin Cuevas, a medic attached to the company, said morale was good.

“Everyone’s excited to go. We’re going to do what we have to do and hurry and up and get back home.”

Cuevas left a wife, a daughter and a dog in Vicenza. He and other soldiers said their goodbyes earlier in the week before heading to the staging area.

“I think it got to the point where a lot of folks had accepted it,” Mayville said. “As a community, I think we have really been waiting for this to happen.”

Gunter said he understands the concerns that family members and loved ones both at Vicenza and in the States might be having.

“They need to have faith and confidence in the leadership we have,” he said. “We have some of the best leaders in the Army in this brigade. Our goal is to bring everyone possible back safely.”

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Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for almost 38 years.

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