Once upon a time* when I was stationed in Italy, my parents decided that they would take a family spring break vacation in Europe to visit me and foreign exchange students they'd hosted over the years. They started planning this in summer 2000, when I first got my orders for Germany (which were soon after amended to Italy), and they wanted to do it in 2003, which they expected would be my last year there.
Over the next year an a half, they researched the places they wanted to visit, bought airline tickets, made car rental and hotel reservations, and were getting excited about the trip to Europe. Knowing that I spent a lot of time in Germany, they planned to be in the Grafenwoher area while I would be there, and I arranged a four-day pass to see sights and spend time with them.
A year into their planning and preparing, sh!t went sideways. Some @ssh0les murdered more than 3,000 people by airplane on a bright September morning, and we were launched into the Global War on Terror.
On my side of things, all training immediately took on a far more urgent cast. We all know that bare weeks after 9/11 we took the fight into Afghanistan, and not long after that we were eyeballing Iraq pretty hard.
I watched FLIR video of the Rangers jumping onto Bagram. I watched newscasts filled with faces of my friends as they prepped for deployment, went on patrols and raids, fought in the Korengal, and sometimes went home in flag draped boxes. The 173d was not chosen to go to Afghanistan until much later.
In the barracks in Italy, we watched AFN News about the buildup in Kuwait, hoping we'd get deployed, knowing it was unlikely. My parents were thankful, as my dad had been involved in Op Desert Shield/Desert Storm and they didn't want me to deal with the things he has to. They adjusted their plans almost last-minute- the buildup for Iraq had disrupted the normal training calendar, and the 173d was not going to Graf for our usual March rotation. My mom, dad, uncle, sister, and two brothers arrived in Berlin on a cool spring evening, picked up their rental van, and drove through the night to get to Vicenza. My squad leader cut me loose on a mid-week four-day pass. If you've spent even a DAY in the military, you know that a "mid-week four-day" is not a thing. Regardless, he cut me loose and I spent the next few days introducing my family to real-deal Italian food and the cities of Vicenza, Venice, and Pisa.
I'm not sure if it was my mom or my dad, but one of them decided that it would be a good idea for them to video me reading some children's stories for my kids (I had 3 boys at the time, all under 5, and my 4th son was born a year and a half later). We spent the last morning of their visit doing that.
On Friday afternoon when my family loaded up the rented van and headed toward Denmark, I got back into BDUs and linked up with my squad. We banged out a layout of some mission-critical item (camo nets, I think), hit a second PT session (weight room), and got dinner at the Chinese restaurant just outside the main gate.
The next two weeks was spent in a fury of deployment prep, though we had no orders for anything. We went to a MWR basketball court that had a big semi-permanent canvas-like dome over it, and CIF had us take and sign for our "Desert Issue." This was 2 DCUs, 2 pairs of desert boots, a boonie hat, an extra 2-quart canteen with tan cover and strap, and a "desert scarf"- a 3'x5' swatch of cotton that looked like it was the same material as our brown BDU t-shirts. This kit seemed "better" than what my dad had been issued at the end of Op DS/DS, but he got his on the way home and we were hoping to be going-to. We were also starting to get a little apprehensive- if we were to go, would we be materially prepared? PT and weapons training was solid, but deserts are f@cking hot and dry, and we had less than half the gear we expected we would.
We were told that our DCU needed name tape, U.S. Army tape, rank, 173d patch, and flag, at a minimum. I had a sewing machine and had been doing jobs for guys in my platoons for a while, so they naturally brought their DCUs to me instead of waiting for Quartermaster to f@ck them up. I never charged for sewing. Once in a while I'd ask some guy or other to get me a spool of thread, but the usual deal was "Buy me a six-pack when you feel guilty." That got a little out of hand. When 1SG came up to let me know that the powers-that-were had ordered Velcro squares be sewn to helmet covers and shirt sleeves, the stacks of beer cases
were four feet tall.
The company--and probably entire brigade--was short of holsters for M9s, so I borrowed a coolguy rig from one of our officers and copied it, using cut-up cots and duffel bags as materials, and scrounging webbing from the riggers. These holsters probably are nowhere close to even "good," but they did the job we needed. I wish I still had the one I made for myself.
We were told to pack up and pare down- "we might deploy in a hurry." Packing lists were handed down from on high, and made no sense whatsoever. I'd expected to be told to pack everything, and I was, but the organization was nonsensical. Someone wanted me to have a DCU and a BDU in my ruck, along with all kinds of other stuff that should go into the "A" or even "B" duffel bags. There was an order to issue 6 MREs to each Soldier and for them to be packed into ruck and buttpack, but because they were issued by hand receipt, we were not allowed to break them down. I already had more cr@p than I could carry, and I wasn't allowed to... F. U. I broke them down anyway. I packed the way I thought I'd need things- and neither a DCU nor BDU made it into my ruck.
We watched the news, both on AFN and the local Italian stuff. We watched the 3d Infantry Division, the 101st, the 82d, and all the others cross the berm and go into the fight. We watched as false surrenders turned into ambushes. We watched it all and fumed about the unfairness of it all, that we should be there doing, not here watching. While we watched and fumed, we packed, unpacked, laid out gear, drank beer, and waited.
On March 23, 2003, we came down for PT formation as usual. Things got decidedly UNusual when 1SG stepped out of the headshed. Normally, he'd be in PT uniform and would pick a squad to follow for PT. Not that day. That day, he came out in DCU and beret. It was ON. We were going, and we were jumping in. No more watching it happen on CNN, no more being left out.
Warnos and fragos flew. Maps were issued. Cargo pallets were built up, torn down, reconfigured, and rebuilt. After about 18 hours of constant activity, we were shuffled off to a gigantic tent set up on one of the sports fields. Inside were rows of cots, and we crashed out hard for a few hours.
On March 24th, we were up and moving again at about 4AM, piling onto tour busses for the drive to Aviano Air Base, a trip of maybe two hours. Most of us pulled our new DCU boonies over our eyes to sleep that much longer.
The busses pulled up to the same rampside overhead-only shelter that we used for our training jumps. The main difference that day was the size of the operation. We would only rarely fly a full battalion out of Aviano for a training jump, and now we were pushing the entire brigade through. That shelter was completely occupied by main and reserve parachutes, so we trudged over to the adjacent parade field to organize our gear and people for the jump. We broke up into chalk order and grounded our gear.
Once that was arranged, we were sent off for chow. It was a novel experience, in that the word "no" had completely disappeared from the vocabulary of the Air Force cooks. My recollection is that it was a regular USAF spread (good quality, servings a little larger than might be USDA Approved, but just shy of spectacular). I don't think anyone took criminal advantage of it, but no one left that building unsatisfied.
It was probably 9AM by the time we got everyone back from the chow hall and started getting to the business of going to war. We went through lines to draw live ammo by the armload (if I remember correctly, I drew 420 rounds of 5.56 NATO on stripper clips, 200 rounds 5.56 NATO link for M249s, 100 rounds 7.62 NATO for the M240s, 2 Claymores, 4 smokes--1 red, 1 purple, 1 yellow, 1 HC--4 frags, 2 green pop flares, 3 rounds 60mm M888 HE, and an AT-4). While that was sobering, it sunk in that this was for really-real when our PA, CPT Reedy, issued antibiotics and live narcs.
Magazines were loaded, meds were secured into aid bags, ammo and demo was packed away so as to be quickly accessible once we hit the ground, and we then rigged our equipment for the jump. There was plenty of bullsh!tting going on, maybe a not-quite-harmless prank or two, and plenty of smack-talk, all underlaid with anxiety and a seriousness we'd never had before. Team leaders and up quizzed us all on the various parts of the mission, and made sure that we all knew the Commander's Intent and the jobs that each of us had, to the detail.
Some of us were detailed to build up the heavy drop pallets. The medical platoon had been given a slot for one HMMWV, and we were set on making the most of it. Obviously, supplies for the Battalion Aid Station (BAS) were packed aboard, but we slipped several crates of Javelin missiles into the cargo bed before the med supplies, camo nets, and other equipment. We handed off the loaded truck to the Riggers, and headed back to the assembly area.
There was a little more smokin' and jokin' before we were sent back to the chow hall. This was to be a novel experience. Not only was "no" still not a thing, but they had pulled out all the stops- fried chicken, surf and turf (lobster and ribeye, not the Army version that substituted frozen fried shrimp...), fresh fruits and vegetables, all in quantities that left no room for the outrageous amount of pie, cake, cookies, and ice cream that had all been made that day. There was more than one miserable wretch at the close of that meal.
It was close to dark by now, so we set guards on the gear and were taken around to the far side of the air strip to a hangar where we were put up for the night. Cots had been set up, lights were dimmed, large-screen TVs plugged in and tuned to CNN. We tried to sleep, but most were anxious enough that we spent equal time lying on cots with closed eyes and gathered in small clusters around the TVs. We gave up on it around dawn on the 25th and went back over to the marshalling area with our gear, and did another round of checks on everything.
Breakfast that day was a morning version of the night before, thick New York strip with eggs, both cooked to order; ham bacon, and sausage filling any perceived gap in proteins; fruit and fresh donuts; and milk, juice, and coffee rounding it all out. "No" was still not a thing in that chow hall. I have to admit that the Air Force does not fool around with chow, and that send-off meal was truly exceptional.
Back to the marshalling area, another round of checks and mission quizzes, and then the almost-obligatory pep talk by the Brigade Commander, COL Mayville. I can't say that I remember much of what he said, but he did paraphrase Jim Gavin, telling us to give him "thirty days and thirty nights of hard fighting, and we will be relieved." It didn't quite pan out that way.
After the pep talk, it was time to rig up. We picked up our gear, drew parachute and reserve as we staggered out of the marshalling area, trudged up, on, and over scales to let us know exactly how much sh!t we were carrying, across the access road, and to our assigned aircraft. I was on Chalk 9. I weighed 220 pounds in DCU and boots, and 483 pounds with MOLLE/ALICE medic rig, helmet, weapons, ammo/demo, water, ruck, and T10-1C and reserve. And they took away my AT-4, as it put me too close to "max gross overload" for the parachute.
The plan was for partial in-flight rigging, meaning we'd put on main and reserve parachute and have that jumpmaster-inspected before boarding the aircraft. Between 1 and 2 hours from the drop zone, the jumpmaster team would come around during the flight to hang our rucks onto the parachute harness and do a final inspection.
The Paratrooper having his 'chute inspected was then and is now one of my closest friends. Fifteen years after we made that jump, he stood up with me as my best man, along with one of my oldest friends (known him and he can still tolerate me after 25 years), and my four sons.
This photo has been used a few different places, and I was surprised to learn that I'm kinda in it. I'm at the left edge, and you can see just part of my face. If you're familiar with the large ALICE pack, you can see that mine--and everyone else'-- is stuff to and beyond rated capacity.
I'll borrow a page from the "Band of Brothers" miniseries, and stop here.
*See my intro post for this to make sense - https://iacmc.forumotion.com/t12959-surprise-realization-i-m-a-collector