Morale of cavalry troops tested as they await mission
May 19, 2003
CAMP UDAIRI, Kuwait — Troops from 1st Squadron, 1st U.S. Cavalry say they are heading into Iraq with little knowledge of their mission and some morale-killing restrictions.
But after months of preparation, the Büdingen, Germany-based soldiers also say they’re ready to tackle any job thrown their way.
“There’s this imaginary black line up there that we’re all waiting to cross. We just don’t know what’s up there,” said Sgt. Joshua Tratner, 25, a tank gunner from Lancaster, Calif. “We don’t really know anything about the mission, but we are ready to go.”
This week, the squadron will relieve the 3rd Squadron, 7th U.S. Cavalry, part of the 3rd Infantry Division. On Friday, squadron commander Lt. Col. Charles Williams led the first convoy north to Baghdad.
The 1st Armored Division’s 2nd and 3rd Brigades also are preparing to move north. The 1st Brigade, which was last to arrive in Kuwait will follow soon.
The current mission is to beat the heat. At midday, temperatures in the desert reach 115 degrees. The tankers in 2nd Platoon, Troop A, found shade under the turret of their M1A1 Abrams tank. Scouts nearby propped up ponchos between their Bradley fighting vehicles.
For three weeks, they spent their days training and conducting maintenance checks in the oppressive Kuwaiti desert, and their nights fighting boredom.
In training, they went over checkpoint operations and infantry basics, and learned a little Arabic. After-hours, they joked, listened to music and chatted about hot topics: their mission, the women they miss, and how nice it would be to have cold beer at the Irish pub in Büdingen.
When passing trucks kicked up clouds of dust, they swore at the drivers and shouted, “Hey I’m living here.” On the side of his tank, 2nd Lt. Stephen Kaminsky, 28, of Moscow, Idaho, kept track of the flies he sent to the afterlife.
“I’ve got 17 confirmed kills, all without a swatter,” Kaminsky said.
When the chatter turned to gripes, the topic was set on the strict orders about operations in Iraq. Highest on the list was an order not to name tanks. Normally, tank crews paint a name on their 120 mm cannon. They think up catchy monikers that begin with their troop letter, such as in Troop A where tanks were named “Above the Law,” “Assume the Position” and “A Girl’s Best Friend.”
A female colonel at the port saw the names and insisted they be removed, the soldiers said. Despite complaints from the crews, the command ordered that no names be stenciled on the gun tubes, said Staff Sgt. Tony Meyers, 30, of Monroe, Mich.
“That’s an armor tradition,” Meyers said. “The order affects morale and espirit de corps.”
And for cavalry troopers, tradition is nearly as important as ammunition, food and water. They brought black Stetson hats and boot spurs along. They planned to don the ceremonial attire and smoke Cuban cigars when they reach Baghdad, but officers warned them against it.
They wanted to fly the red and white cavalry banner in Iraq, but higher authorities said no. Flying the U.S. flag is also forbidden in Iraq for U.S. troops.
“Every day, it’s something different,” said Sgt. 1st Class Timothy Jones. “It’s ruining the morale of this division.”
Despite the restrictions, the platoon members said they were eager to get to work and they could handle the difficult transition from war to peace under way in Iraq.
“We’re all veterans of the Bosnia thing,” Meyers said, relating the current mission to peacekeeping. “We can take tanks into the city and do the dismounted thing.”
Beside their mission, their families were at the forefront of their minds. Mail is slow, but arriving regularly, they said.
Spc. Allen Ronk’s wife, Estie, who is in Bakersfield, Calif., is about to deliver their second child. The baby is due June 4, Ronk said, looking to the ground.
“The only thing I’ll get is a Red Cross message,” Ronk said. “You do what you’ve got to do. She has family for support, but she’d much rather have me there.”
During the heat of the day, no one wanted to eat. More than that, they didn’t want to don their body armor and helmets to walk across the camp and stand in a seemingly endless line at the mess tent.
They do anything to keep their minds of the heat and sandstorms.
Pfc. Sam Viall is working his way through Tom Wolfe’s, “The Right Stuff.”
Capt. Jesse Wintworth is listening to audio books downloaded from the Internet.
“We’re definitely ready for a change of scenery,” said flight operations officer Capt. Marshall Tway, 32, of Austin, Texas.
As the squadron prepared to leave, the 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division was just arriving at the camp, about 25 miles north of Kuwait City. The Friedberg, Germany-based soldiers might spend more than a week in Kuwait before following the division north.
Friends from 1st Battalion, 37th Armor Regiment, such as Spc. Andrew Jackson, 25, were met with smiles. They would chat about guys from former units that they had recently seen.
By Thursday, the trip north was delayed. A sergeant from another platoon passed by the tank crews.
“You know that rumor about us leaving tomorrow? That ain’t happening,” he said.
The news met with a few expletives, but by then, they were happy enough to just be enjoying the shade.