CAMP NEW JERSEY, KUWAITThe explosion of the Patriot missile 276 yards away yanked Sgt. William George from a deep sleep. George had bunked next to his humvee, a tradition among U.S. Army Air Defenders who like to keep an eye on their equipment. Workdays that stretch to 20 or 22 hours mean that even frequent Scud alarms do not keep all soldiers from sleep.
But the Patriot's springing awake made George bolt upright in his sleeping bag and hop to the front of his truck, where he saw the tail of the Patriot explode into the sky. "It was like a bright star," he said later.
Eight hours later, George sat at the head of one section of Ground Attack Convoy 5, next to Lt. Jason Steger, the executive officer of the Charlie Battery. The first elements of the Third Brigade of the 101st Infantrythe Rakkasansentered Iraq Thursday, followed by other waves of light infantry fighters, Avenger trucks. The Rakkasans mission, said Lt. Col. Marty Herbert, the commander of the Brigade's 626th Forward Support and leader of the attack convoy, is to penetrate Iraq and establish a base from which the division's helicopters or its ground forces can strike into the country. The commander of Charlie Battery, Capt. Pat Costello, had left the day before, helping clear the path to the 101st's objective.
(Julian Barnes for USN&WR)
Friday, it was time for more of the division's support elements to enter the country, on a path they hoped was cleared by the lead elements of the brigade. Although they were not to be the first into Iraq, soldiers in the convoy were still nervous. This was a ground assault convoy, and they were expected to get to their objective even in the face of resistance.
As the waiting stretched on, many men in the convoy began thinking of their families, whom they had not seen for a month. Pvt. Javier Feliciano, from Puerto Rico, was married three months ago. When he got his deployment orders, his wife, Glenis, cried. "I'll be honest," he said. "I cried, too." His friend, Spc. Steven Eddy, leaned over. "Yeah," he said. "No one likes it out here, everyone is ready to go." Eddy was nervous, like most in the convoy. But he was trying not to think of the road ahead. "I am trying to think positive," he said.
Feliciano, sitting in the shade of his Large Transport Vehicle, took a drag on his last remaining Marlboro. "Everyone here is nervous," he said. "Everyone is scared. But we feel good we have good equipment." With that he pointed to the Mark 19 machine gun mounted on the top of his gun. "We just got it today," said Eddy.
Near the front of the Air Defense Artillery's section of the convoy, Pvt. 1st Class Ayman Makram Girgis, the battery's Arabic speaker, monitored the radio, searching for reports about the war. "That son of a bitch has burned 30 oil wells," Girgis said, adding a curse for good measure. Girgis, who was born in Egypt, became a U.S. citizen last year and joined the military. "I wanted to defend freedom like anyone else," he said. "It is our freedom and we have to defend it."
Privately some of the men grumbled about the convoy's safety rules, but none raised complaints to the officers. At noon, Colonel Herbert gathered the officers in the convoy, collecting a final count of the vehicles, and warning people against being lackadaisical. He counted six hats on the soldiers. Now he said was the time for Kevlar helmets. "I do not want to see a soft cap until Iraq is liberated," he said. Herbert went over the plan, what to do with captured Iraqis, what the special operations soldiers protecting the convoy would look like, and how to deal with ambushes. Once the convoy entered Iraq, he said, there would be no stopping. "It's continuous movement; we are going until" we get to the objective.
When the briefing broke up, Steger assembled the Air Defenders in front of his humvee. In Iraq, he said, the men would wear their protective chemical-weapons gear. Fatigue would be a problem and so would maintaining speed. Stay alert and keep on moving, he said. "We are going through the breach," Steger said. "We are going into combat."
A moment later, as if on cue, a piercing siren screamed across the desert. The men dropped their helmets and put on their masks, and looked at the nearby Patriots. When the missiles did not stir, the men turned again to their executive officer. "The only way home is through that breach," He said. "For a lot of us this could be it, this could be what you tell your children. You could be 60 telling your children about what you did here."
At 3:30 p.m., Charlie Battery's section of Ground Attack Convoy 5 trolled out of Camp New Jersey and turned north, toward Iraq.