1st Armored Division spends 15 months fighting, rebuilding in Iraq
It was a war many 1st Armored Division troops thought they’d missed.
The second Iraq war represented a new role for the division. It was the first time since 1942 — when “Old Ironsides” became the first American armored division to see combat — that the 1st AD went to war in relief.
In mid-March 2003, 1st AD soldiers at Baumholder said they were somewhat disappointed, believing they had missed the conventional offensive, which ran from March 20 through April 14.
By April 10, Baghdad already had fallen, and soldiers at the 1st Battalion, 35th Armored Regiment were preparing to load their Abrams M1A1s for peacekeeping role.
But they were prepared to fight.
“We’re trained for combat; combat till we’re told otherwise,” said Staff Sgt. Kirk Pryka, a 1-35 tank commander.
The division’s deployment was delayed by several unforeseen complications of deploying America’s last armored division, including a 10-day period in March when a dispute between Belgian officials kept 1st AD equipment and materiel on the docks of Antwerp.
By May 1, the Bush administration announced the end to major combat operations.
But for better or worse, the soldiers didn’t miss the war. What they went to was far different from the initial ground war their predecessors, the 3rd Infantry Division, fought, or what any American ground forces had encountered.
By late May 2003, when the 1st AD relieved the 3rd ID in Baghdad, the ground war against Saddam Hussein’s ground forces was over, replaced by sporadic attacks — mostly improvised roadside bombs — by insurgents.
An initial eight-month period of relative stability was beginning, though flashpoints remained around Iraq — including Baghdad — with 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment and 82nd Airborne Division forces in Fallujah facing daily attacks.
By comparison, 1st AD commanders and soldiers spent much of their time hunting down figures from Saddam Hussein’s deposed regime. The 1st AD captured its share of Iraqis on the most wanted list. But many times, raids pursuing Iraqi Baathists ended in frustration, with targets slipping away like rabbits under a picket fence.
Policymakers in Washington, D.C., used the 1st AD to do a complex, interrelated matrix of missions — everything from nurturing local neighborhood and municipal councils to recruiting spy networks, then launching intel-based raids.
By August 2003, 1st AD commanders in Baghdad described a “three-block war.”
On one block in Baghdad, they said, soldiers were meeting with local officials, working basically as civics teachers — disciples of democracy transferring neighborhood and metropolitan governance skills to Iraqis.
On the next block, soldiers were rebuilding infrastructure Saddam ignored for decades — renovating a school or funding a sewer and water project with money seized from the deposed regime.
On the third block, they were in a firefight.
It was the first time in history the U.S. Army simultaneously was fighting a war in the same nation it was trying to rebuild.
Col. Ralph O. Baker, then commander of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, told Stars and Stripes last September that he and his 5,000 soldiers often worked with Baghdad’s neighborhood councils in the morning, public works projects in the afternoon. Then, Baker said, at 2 a.m., they were working command-and-control for a raid.
“That’s what makes the 2nd Brigade Combat Team unique,” he said. “Logistics. Diplomacy and war fighting.”
However, by early 2004, mostly uncoordinated attacks against U.S. troops coalesced into a nationwide insurgency.
On April 29, eight 1st AD soldiers from the Baumholder-based Company C, 4th Battalion, 27th Field Artillery died in the worst single attack. A moving car bomb detonated near a team of soldiers clearing explosives from a road in Mahmoudiya, south of Baghdad. In all, the division suffered 77 combat deaths, about half from roadside bombs, half from small-arms attacks.
Because of the increasing violence, Iraq commanders announced April 16 that the 1st AD’s one-year tour was extended to 15 months. The division stayed on in Baghdad to back up its replacement, the 1st Cavalry Division, which took command from the 1st AD on April 15. Then, 1st AD units moved south to Kut and Najaf to battle Shiite militiamen, and to Babil Province to protect supply lines.
The 1st AD finally began returning to German bases in June, and the division colors returned to Wiesbaden on July 14. On August 15, the Bush administration announced a long-term realignment plan that ultimately would return the 1st AD to the United States.