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Staff Sgt. Kirk Pryka, right, a Bradley tank commander, confers with his loader, Pfc. Mark Carter. The soldiers are with the 1st Battalion, 35th Armor Regiment of the 1st Armored Division, which is deploying to the war in Iraq.

Staff Sgt. Kirk Pryka, right, a Bradley tank commander, confers with his loader, Pfc. Mark Carter. The soldiers are with the 1st Battalion, 35th Armor Regiment of the 1st Armored Division, which is deploying to the war in Iraq. (Terry Boyd)

BAUMHOLDER, Germany — Tanks, Humvees and miscellaneous support vehicles lined up Tuesday at the 1st Battalion, 35th Armor Regiment motor pool, waiting to be sent to the railhead — or to repair areas for last-minute fixes.

The 1-35, part of the Baumholder-based 2nd Brigade — along with the rest of the 1st Armored Division — is going to war.

Or is it?

The same day, a B-1B bomber might have killed Saddam Hussein and his sons as they met with Iraqi military officials. By Wednesday, fighting in Baghdad had been replaced by celebration, looting and statue toppling.

Still, 1st AD soldiers say there’s only one mission on their minds.

“Our focus is on combat; combat till we’re told otherwise,” said Staff Sgt. Kirk Pryka, a 1-35 tank commander on an Abrams M1A1. “That’s what we trained for.”

A hundred yards away, Capt. John Bowen, a 1-35 company commander, savored the moment as he watched some of the 14 Abrams he commands negotiate the pre-shipping inspection process.

“I spent the last two years of my life getting this company ready to go to war. Now, I’m doing it,” Bowen said. “I know they are ready.”

The division’s mission may be changing in the fluid war against Iraq.

Last week, The Washington Post quoted an unnamed senior defense official who said that changes in U.S. European Command’s final war plan — after Turkey’s decision not to let U.S. ground forces attack across its border with Iraq — slowed down deployment of heavy divisions.

“I know the 1st Armored Division was delayed,” the official said. “They were scheduled in pretty early. I don’t know why, but I just know they were stood down. Otherwise, they would have been there by now.”

The Wiesbaden-based division received its deployment orders on March 4, but “it was, ‘You’re going, you’re not going. You’re going, you’re not going,’” until the first of the month, Bowen said.

The in-between time is the hardest part.

“When someone says, ‘You’re definitely going,’ you’re focused,” Bowen said. “Every soldier is taking that extra little step in everything they do.”

In a speech last week, Maj. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, 1st AD commander, told troops in Baumholder that they are going to war, and to count on being gone a year.

Now, at 1st AD bases all over Germany, soldiers are scrambling nearly around the clock to work through one of the world’s largest logistical challenges: deploying a heavy armored division.

To some extent, the voyage has become more important than the destination.

At Baumholder, soldiers ran through the regiment motor pools screaming, “Hurry up” and “Hey, where’d my tank go?” Other soldiers practiced the hand-to-hand combat training they got earlier in the day, rehearsing the opening moves of getting a grip on the enemy.

At Wiesbaden, a half-mile of equipment ran up and down the airport road on Thursday.

“I’ve never seen anything like this!” said Sgt. Scott Gallup, tasked from the 501st Military Intelligence Battalion to help inspect and clean 27 flatbed trucks loaded with everything from M-88 recovery vehicles to Humvees.

Nearby, 1st Lt. Jason Torpy, 123rd Main Support Battalion at Dexheim worked his clipboard of documents.

“It takes a week to do this job, and we’re going to do it in two days because of the motivation … of the soldiers,” Torpy yelled over the din.

No matter how busy, soldiers’ minds were still on the uncertainty of what they’re getting into. Depending whom you talked to, attitudes ranged from anxious to gung-ho.

Some took little comfort in the waning combat in Iraq.

“Are you telling me it’s safe to go peacekeeping?” asked one 123rd MSB soldier who asked his name not be used.

At Baumholder, tankers were more sanguine.

Many commanders and platoon sergeants had deployed to either Desert Storm, or to peacekeeping missions, and they all know the routine. Pryka and his three-man Abrams crew are squared away, he said.

They’ve all told their wives they’ll be gone for a year, said Staff Sgt. Christopher West, Company A, 1-35. West said he told his wife, Tanja, “to think of it as a Korea tour.”

West grew up the son of a soldier at Leesville, La., next to Fort Polk.

“I see now how my mother was stressed out,” he said.

Others were looking forward to their first big test. With his electrical engineering degree, 1-35 company commander Bowen could be safe in a corporate cubicle, slogging through another project for the firm.

Not for him.

“It’s the best job in the world, company commander,” he said. “The Army gives me the best vehicle on the battlefield. Only drawback is now, they want me to test it out.”

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