Tiger Brigade gears up for 3rd rotation
CAMP BUEHRING, Kuwait — At a dusty base camp in northwest Kuwait, the third wave is prepping for the fight.
For almost three weeks, 3,000 members of the 256th Brigade Combat Team — led by Louisiana National Guardsmen but supplemented with troops from New York, Minnesota, Wisconsin and elsewhere — have been drilling in urban warfare and honing their marksmanship skills.
The “Tiger Brigade” is the tip of the spear in what the Pentagon is calling Operation Iraqi Freedom ’04-’06: the third rotation of troops since the March 2003 invasion that toppled the dictator Saddam Hussein.
“We’re proud. It’s an historic moment,” said Lt. Col. Jordan Jones, 42, commander of the Tiger Brigade’s 1st Battalion, 141st Field Artillery. “We’re pleased to be relieving our brothers.”
The first rotation began in late 2002. The second took place during the early part of 2004, when more than 130,000 troops replaced the invasion and postinvasion forces.
This fall, the Tiger Brigade stands almost alone at Buehring. Everyone lives in climate-controlled tents or hard-shelled portable living units.
Due to adjustments to the newest rotation, soldiers can walk right into the chow hall, post exchange or sandwich shop with little or no waiting, a sharp contrast to the overcrowded camps of the last two troop rotations.
Although they’ve just arrived in the Middle East, camp life is not new to these guardsmen. They’ve been activated since May and have spent most of the intervening months at Fort Hood, Texas, or the Army’s vast National Training Center in the California desert. They’ve spent only a few weeks at home.
The seemingly odd mix of Louisianans and New Yorkers makes up the bulk of this brigade. The forbears of Jones’ “Washington Artillery” unit — among the oldest gun batteries in the country — once fired at the ancestors of Capt. Sean Flynn, commander of Company B, 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry Regiment, at the early Civil War battle of Malvern Hill, Va.
The “Fighting 69th” is descended from the Irish Brigade, one of the most famous Civil War regiments. Flynn’s great-grandfather and four brothers all fought for the unit in the Union Army, and many of his relatives since have served in the brigade.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find any Irish family in New York that doesn’t have some connection to this unit,” said Flynn, a 32-year-old writer from Brooklyn.
Although they still paint shamrocks on their Humvees, the Fighting 69th is now a polyglot of first-generation Americans. Flynn said his company includes natives of Puerto Rico, Colombia, Peru, South Korea and Poland.
Guardsmen from both New York and Louisiana said the union has been smooth. They say their differences united, more than divided, them, feeding the good-natured joshing that forms the basis of close male friendships.
“When it comes down to it,” added Staff Sgt. David Lluvera, 33, of Corum, N.Y., “we’re all flying the same flag.”
Butterflies rumble around in almost every belly now, no matter what state the soldiers come from. Most of them confess to a touch of nerves but no real fear as they brace for the convoy ride north. It’s the mix of anxiety and eagerness that new warriors have felt since the beginning of man.
“I don’t really know what to expect,” said Sgt. Paul Sabatier, 23, of the 256th BCT, a security alarm installer from Broussard, La. “I’m kind of anxious to see what’s going to happen.”
To bolster the troops’ confidence, their commanders have drilled them endlessly in how to respond to unexpected attacks. They believe they are ready.
“It’s kind of like turning the muscle memory on,” said Staff Sgt. Stanley Shavers Jr., 38, a Texan who serves in the Tiger Brigade. “Hopefully, if everything goes right, we won’t have to fire a single shot.”
“Anything that tries to attack us,” said 1st Lt. Keith Bores, 30, of Shreveport, La., “we’re prepared.”
Lluvera served in combat during the Persian Gulf War. He said training is helpful, but nothing quite compares with the reality of combat, something most of the men in his unit haven’t yet experienced.
“It’ll all come together when the first bullet passes over their heads,” he said. “It’s really liberating, actually.”
“The No. 1 thing we can do is control everything we can,” Flynn said. “A lot of things are in God’s hands.”