top search of the week

173rd Airborne Jump Iraq

Dietz print 173rd

Week ending December 15, 2013

The top search of the week was ‘173rd airborne jump iraq.’ Those searchers were surely looking for information on the March 26, 2003 combat jump into northern Iraq by elements of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. I wrote about that event from the point of view of a disgruntled All American, waking up on a stale cot in Kuwait to hear the news.

For a paratrooper, earning a combat jump device, or “mustard stain” is the pinnacle of airborne service. You have to be at the right place at the right time – in history. Combat jumps happen infrequently – they are cosmic events, one every 20 years or so. Recently I met someone in my unit who jumped with the 173rd in Iraq, and I couldn’t help but get giddy and ask “What was it like?”

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iraq ten years ago

The sky is socked in with ‘shock and awe.’ NO JUMP TONIGHT! (Mar. 27, 2003)

 

Listen up! The channel coast is socked in with rain and fog. High winds in the drop zone. NO JUMP TONIGHT. The invasion has been postponed. We’re on a 24-hour stand-down.

Scratch.

The mission we had been rehearsing for over a month just got scratched. To get “scratched” is airborne parlance for cancelled. Our entire mission was cancelled. Hearts were broken, especially mine. I wanted that rarest of awards, the tiny yellow star, the infamous ‘mustard stain’ – the combat jump device – affixed to my parachutist badge. That award required just about no talent or work. You simply had to be at the right place at the right time, like World War II, Grenada, or Panama.

With our mission cancelled, we waited in Kuwait, dodging scuds, playing dodgeball, sitting on cots listening to the BBC while the rest of military stormed towards Baghdad. Things were moving quickly, and the fear shifted from going to war to missing it completely.

Then, finally, we received a new mission. We would parachute into an open field outside of a small city called Samawah and secure the city to allow supplies to move forward to support the main elements pushing towards Baghdad. Elements of the Fedayeen Saddam were conducting ambushes along Highway 8 which passed through Samawah.

When my squad leader pointed out the city and tentative drop zone I beamed. The Baghdad jump was seeming like it’d be a bloodbath. Plus, it would probably be a hard pavement landing – ouch. Now we were looking at a landing in the desert and an assault on a much smaller city ‘garrisoned’ by a rag tag militia of fake ninjas.

We spent the 27th tearing down our camp and packing up our bags neatly on palettes. We got into lines and did a lot of sitting. Some of the guys in our platoon started writing quotes, prayers, missives, and plain nonsense on their t-shirts. Eventually someone from BN headquarters saw it and yelled at them, putting an end to it.

We waited for nightfall.

When it came, we sat and waited more.

Eventually we were told that we were on a 24 hour stand down. The skies were saturated with cruise missiles and someone was afraid we’d be knocked out of the air.

We scurried back into empty tents and found spots on the floor and slept. Our war wouldn’t start today.

iraq ten years ago

To the chagrin of the 82nd, the 173rd jumps into Iraq (Mar. 26, 2003)

173rd Paratrooper

A photo from the morning of the jump. This photo became one of the iconic images of the war. I’ve seen it used a lot in ‘remembrance’ photos, probably because it looks like the guy is kneeling in order to honor the fallen. In reality, the guy is sucking. He’s carrying a lot of gear and his life sucks right now. He’s happy he got his mustard stain, but thinks the whole thing was a little ridiculous. And he’s muddy and has no idea when he’ll get an opportunity to clean his clothes. Also, some photographer is taking a photo of him kneeling in the field – on this, his first few hours in war.

I remember my eyes slowly opening early this morning in Kuwait. The war had been on for almost a week now and we still haven’t been put in. Bright fluorescent lights flicked on and I was squinting to adjust my eyes. The entire platoon was going through the morning routine, which always begins with feeling sorry for yourself for a few minutes before peeling yourself off of the cot.

My platoon sergeant rolled off of his cot and immediately turned on his crank radio to the BBC, catching the headline news at the top of the hour. We all stopped and listened, tuning our ears in, paratroopers listening more intently to the news than they ever will again in their entire lives. In the fanciest British accent:

“Paratroopers of the 173rd Airborne Brigade parachuted into Northern Iraq today, seizing a military airfield and opening the northern front of the war.”

We didn’t hear anything else after that, because the entire tent exploded in anger and grumbling.

This was some complete bullshit, we thought.

(I wrote about this event in a little more detail here)

middle east

French paratroopers earn their mustard stains in Mali

Lots of action going on in Mali. Here’s the story behind the jump.

The ‘combat jump device‘ is one of the rarest awards in the US military. Right place, right time. I almost got one (not really).

I’m not sure if there is an equivalent award for the French. If anyone knows if they get any special recognition for participating in a combat jump, I’d love to know about it.

fieldcraft, reflections

Fieldcraft: Short wave crank radio (and the greatest mission that never happened)

I was in the field last week for a detail, but I was determined not to miss the first Presidential debate. I wouldn’t have access to a television, and streaming audio or video through my iPhone was no sure bet considering I didn’t know if I would have power to keep the phone charged or enough cellular service to make it happen. So I dug into my gear box and pulled out my old short wave crank radio. My dad had given it to me as a gift a number of years back and it came in great use. The radio is powered by batteries, or crank power. Crank the handle for a minute and it will provide 30-60 minutes of listening time (depending on volume, age and condition of the rechargeable batteries, and other factors that are beyond my understanding). The radio can pick up local AM and FM radio stations, and more importantly, short wave radio stations. I was able to sit in a concrete room with a bunch of other young second lieutenants and listen to the debate.

This wasn’t the first experience I had with a short wave crank radio. My platoon sergeant brought one with him for OIF I. He was a veteran of the Gulf War, and that experience informed him that having a short wave radio might be helpful. He would turn the radio on first thing in the morning as we woke up in Kuwait. On most days the news discussed the ongoing diplomatic battles raging between Iraq, the US, and the UN, and the buildup of forces in the Gulf. Once the war began, the information became much more relevant, discussing significant battles, casualties, and troop movements.

We had been in Kuwait for over a month, training daily for the greatest mission that never happened. For a whole week we felt like we were sitting on the sideline, waiting for the coach to put us in the game. The war was moving fast, and our greatest fear was that the whole thing might end without us ever leaving Kuwait. Then, a week after the war began, on March 26, I rolled out of my cot and sat up, rubbing the sleep and sand out of my eyes and adjusting to the bright lights which were hastily turned on at 0600. The platoon sergeant turned on the radio just in time to catch the opening of the BBC World Service. In a charming British accent, we heard:

“Paratroopers of the 173rd Airborne Brigade parachuted into Northern Iraq today, seizing a military airfield and opening the northern front of the war.”

The tent erupted in groans and expletives. “BULLSHIT” was the most commonly heard word for a couple of minutes. Soldiers were flipping cots. We were angry, but mostly jealous.

A combat jump is the ultimate prize for a paratrooper, and as the greatest mission that never happened slowly faded away in likelihood, it was dawning on us that those paratroopers from the 173rd would be sporting mustard stains for what seemed to be a relatively safe operation. Adding to this is the spirit of competition between airborne units. Paratroopers in the 82nd like to think of themselves as the premier airborne unit, while paratroopers in the 173rd have an air of superiority about them because they’re a smaller unit and they’re in Vicenza, not Fayetteville.

Later, during the invasion in 2003, the unit I was with was moving rapidly north towards Baghdad, but we were behind the lead elements of the 3rd Infantry Division and the Marines. We were hopping from town to town working our way north, staying nowhere for longer than a couple of days. Starved for information with no one providing us any updates on the war, our platoon huddled around the platoon sergeant and his little radio whenever we had some down time. I remember the whole platoon slumming around on the cool floor in a school in Rumayhtah, listening to the BBC World Service describe the latest news on the war and the reaction back home. We’d listen to the descriptions of battles we had just fought and grumble at battles we missed out on. It was strange, and somewhat disconcerting to get the most accurate news about what we were doing from an international broadcast from thousands of miles away. But it was the reality of the time, and that cheap crank radio provided us with the information we desperately desired.

I wonder what a war in the image of Iraq would look like today. Many of the emerging technologies we have today did not exist back then. There’s a part of me that would like to think that we are so advanced now that you shouldn’t need to bring a short wave crank radio with you to war to get information. But I also thought that in 2003, the American Army wouldn’t run out of MREs during the push to Baghdad.

I’ll keep the radio in my rucksack.