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HEIDELBERG, Germany — Several contingents from the Germany-based 69th Air Defense Artillery Brigade, among the first units to deploy in the ramp up for war against Iraq, are on their way home.

However, others in the busy Patriot missile brigade, which has been spread over at least four countries in recent months, still have work to do.

One of the first units dispatched for desert duty was the 69th Brigade’s 5th Battalion, 7th Air Defense Artillery Regiment out of Babenhausen.

Originally sent to Israel for war games in January, the task force quickly shifted to real world air defense as the United States began its military buildup amid fears Iraq would lash out against the Jewish nation, as it did during the first Persian Gulf War.

“As things were heating up in Iraq, it was decided to go ahead and stay and begin occupying battle positions,” said Maj. Gen. Stanley E. Green, commander of the U.S. Army Air Defense Artillery Center in Fort Bliss, Texas. Green led the 700-strong contingent in Israel.

Dubbed Task Force Cobra, in the end the contingent never had to bare its fangs. Iraq’s lackluster counterattacks were all aimed south toward advancing U.S. troops from Kuwait.

While some troops are still packing up their gear for shipment back to Germany, the first soldiers have already returned. Everyone is expected home in the next few weeks, Green said.

Meanwhile, another Patriot task force — two batteries also from the 5-7 Air Defense Artillery — that was dispatched to defend Incirlik Air Base in southeastern Turkey, is on its way home and should be back around the same time, he said.

Soldiers in the 69th Brigade’s second Patriot battalion, however, shouldn’t expect a homecoming any time soon. The 6th Battalion, 52nd ADA from Ansbach has moved from positions defending Kuwait into Iraq.

“They’re moving around right now, jumping between I Marine Expeditionary Force and V Corps,” Green said. “I think they’ll probably be much later.”

Easing tempo

With Iraq subdued, however, the good news for the entire Patriot community is that the overall tempo of deployments could ease in the coming years.

Soldiers in the Army’s 10 Patriot battalions have been among some of the busiest in the military over the past 13 years.

First tested in combat during the 1991 Gulf War, at least one Patriot battalion has been split between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia on six-month deployments ever since. During the nearly annual spikes in tension around Iraq, additional Patriot units routinely were among the first to reinforce allied defenses in the region as well.

Meanwhile, soldiers also have had to man the single Patriot battalion in South Korea under one-year hardship tours.

“I look forward to hopefully being able to ease that a little bit, unless we are called on to either maintain a larger footprint than we think we will in the Middle East or whether we have some other flare up that we have to deploy for,” Green said.

Already, Pentagon officials have announced a nearly complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Saudi Arabia, where Prince Sultan Air Base has been a home away from home for many Patriot crews. Green said a review is now under way to assess the threat posed by Syria and Iran, which both field arsenals of long missiles.

“We’ll assess those threats and where they might come from, and then set a defense,” Green said. Another option being considered, he added, is to “spring assets there quickly” with short-notice units that could beef up defenses inside Iraq when needed.

Breathing easy

Meanwhile, Israelis are breathing a little easier these days.

Convinced Iraq would make a last-ditch attack to drag Israel into the war and further Arab opposition to the war, U.S. leaders were quick to augment air defenses in Israel early on.

“Every indication was that we would [be fired upon],” Green said. “It was surprising not to receive anything.”

Indeed, the worst part turned out to be the weather.

“Unfortunately we received the most rain since 1991. It was horrendous,” Green said. “In some cases the rain was coming in horizontal.”

The weather was so severe, he said, that at one point heavy winds “took out an antenna and did some damage, but we were back on the air quickly.”

Green’s task force was assigned the defense of Tel Aviv, melding into Israel’s own missile defense shield.

In fact, the January exercises were designed to experiment with how U.S. and Israeli Patriot units could work with the new Arrow missile system, jointly developed by the United States and Israel.

“They took a scheduled exercise, turned it essentially into a rehearsal and then went into the operation and made it all work,” Green said.

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