CAMP NEW JERSEY, KUWAITOn Thursday, just before 12:30 p.m., Lt. Col. Rodney McCants picked up his Kevlar helmet and strode out the door of his tent. The war in Iraq had begun early that morning, and now it was time to see off his troops, the 101st Airborne Division's Air Defense Artillery. As he stepped out the tents there were the sound of an explosion and then the wail of the siren. "Masks!" McCants shouted. "Go to the bunker." Soldiers of the 2/44 Air Defense Artillery stopped packing their gear, slammed their masks to their faces, and ran to the concrete and sandbagged bunkers. "And the fun has begun," Sgt. Donald Grose said grimly.
In the sky overhead, according to soldiers monitoring radar, a Patriot missile battery fired and destroyed the missile, an Ababil-100 fired from Basra. The Army's air defense apparently had worked.
It took another 20 minutes for the all clear to sound. McCants wasted no time, hopping into his humvee to review the troops. McCants's humvee pulled up to a convoy of the 3rd Brigade of the Army's 101st Airborne Division. Scattered throughout the convoy were McCants's menSentinel radar truck operators, Avenger battery controllers, and soldiers who launch shoulder-fired Stinger missiles, like Spc. Jalan Dotson, 21. "I've never done anything like this, so I am going to wait until something happens before I get scared," said Dotson, who minutes before was lying in the dirt next to his truck wearing a gas mask.
As Dotson finished talking, McCants gestured for him and the other men to gather around. "Now is not the time to be scared," McCants said. "We have been training for nearly two years for this." With the eloquence of a practiced orator, McCants touched on the physicalclean the air filter, oil weapons lightly on the inside only, do constant maintenanceand the mentalrely on training, do not overthink.
The 101st Airbornethe Screaming Eaglesis a proud and accomplished division, and McCants's remarks implicitly evoked that legacy. "We are going into this war and we are going to do everything asked of us," he said, his voice firm, his eyes scanning from soldier to soldier. "And when it is time to go, we are going to go home standing tall."
The men had the support of the country, McCants said, and it was now time to live up to that trust. "It is almost show time," he said, turning to the officer in charge of the platoon. "Lieutenant, keep my men safe, and each of you keep each other safe."
Back at the other side of Camp New Jersey, inside the air defense battalion's tactical operations center, Lt. Gina San Nichols, an intelligence officer, sat at her terminal reviewing the location of Iraqi chemical weapons, a deep crease running across her brow. Warrant Officer Juan Santiago sat at a radar terminal with one eye on a map of Iraq that noted all the activity in the air and the other on a stream of E-mail messages from the Coalition Forces Land Component Command at Camp Doha.
Then came another blast of the siren. Throughout the tent, officers ripped open Velcro closures and slammed the rubber masks to their faces. At Camp Thunder, the camp where the 101st Division keeps its helicopters, a Patriot missile battery from the Air Defense Battalion, Echo 243, came to life firing its interceptors at the Ababil-100. Santiago called out map grid coordinates for the intercept sight and scanned the computer for information on where the missiles had launched from. Moments later, the computer flashed a message. Echo 243, radar operators reported, had destroyed the missile.
Six hours and three false alarms later, McCants and his staff officers gathered together for the nightly battle update briefing. San Nichols started it off with understatement. "A lot went on today, so pay attention," she said. McCants waited until the end before he turned to speak to his officers. "It was air defenders who fired the first shot," he said proudly. And the air defense fired the shot to defend the 101st from an attack on its helicopters stationed at Camp Thunder. "The enemy knows the 101st is on the ground," he said. "The war is on. Like I said the night before, and the night before that, I am confident. We are going to go over there and do well."
Then the chaplain, Capt. Jay West, rose. West opened his Bible to Isaiah and read. "Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength," he read. "They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary." As he closed his Bible, the sound of artillery guns firing into Iraq rumbled into the tent.