Jumping into the Iraq War: a daring combat jump under the cover of darkness deposited the 173rd Airborne Brigade into northern Iraq in March. Its presence virtually sealed off the oil-rich region

Tim Dyhouse

They couldn’t drive to the battlefield, so they did what they do best: jump feet first into the fray. Two battalions of the Army’s storied 173rd Airborne Brigade conducted a successful, nighttime parachute drop into northern Iraq on March 26. The brigade, part of the U.S. Army Southern European Task Force, was reactivated in June 2000 and was primed for just such a mission.

It was the biggest combat jump since the invasion of Panama in 1989, and the 173rd’s first wartime drop in 35 years, when it jumped near Katum, South Vietnam, during Operation Junction City on Feb. 22, 1967. [On that mission, 845 paratroopers of the 2nd Bn., 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR) and A Battery, 3rd Bn., 319th Field Artillery participated.]

For the Iraq jump, some 1,000 173rd paratroopers, Rangers and support personnel dropped after a five-hour flight from Aviano Air Base near their home post at Camp Ederle in Vicenza, Italy. The 2nd Bn., 503rd PIR and the 1st Bn., 508th PIR comprised about 80% of the airborne troops. The rest were engineers, sniper and long-range surveillance teams, Air Force special ops troops, a combat support company and a six-man medical/surgical detachment.

According to Airman magazine, 19 airmen of the 86th Expeditionary Contingency Response Group participated.

“It was pitch black,” said Air Force Master Sgt. Charles Cremeans, an independent duty medical technician with the 786th Security Forces Squadron. “But the jump was a relief–all the weight [from his 100-pound rucksack] was gone.”

The 173rd’s commander had words of motivation for the troops before the drop.

“Americans are asking you to make the world a better place by jumping into the unknown for the benefit of others,” Col. William Mayville said. “Paratroopers, our cause is just and victory is certain. I want you to join me tonight on an airborne assault.”

They descended from 30,000 feet in 17 C-17s to jump at 600 feet. Airman magazine reported 20 soldiers were hurt upon landing, and C-17s had to medevac out six who suffered spinal, leg and other injuries. Another 36 unfortunate troopers couldn’t participate because the one-minute time limit to clear the planes had expired.

The troops landed in muddy fields about 75 miles east-northeast of Mosul to secure Harir Airfield near Bashur. Paratroopers spent the night looking for and digging out heavy equipment–including Humvees–that was dropped first. The airfield was later used to deliver tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles.

The 173rd’s area of operations is in an oil-rich, Kurdish- and U.S. Special Forces-controlled region of northeastern Iraq bordering Turkey and Iran. One of the paratroopers’ main missions upon landing was to secure oil fields around Mosul and Kirkuk.

“Kirkuk is key,” said Army Maj. Mike Hastings in early April. “The Iraqis want it, the Turks want it and various other ethnic groups also want it. What this drop means is that we can secure it until we are relieved by other forces.”

After Turkey denied the U.S. permission to base ground troops on its soil and use land routes to drive into northern Iraq, U.S. commanders considered flying the brigade into Harir Airfield. But that scenario, they decided, would have taken too long. Commanders figured a full-blown airborne assault also would have a deep psychological impact on the Turks, Iraqis and Kurds.

“I was very excited,” said Sgt. James Michael Brown, of Headquarters and Headquarters Co., 1st Bn., 508th PIR, on his feelings immediately prior to the jump. “It was very muddy and pitch black. I couldn’t see my hands, let alone any enemy.”

No Enemy Resistance

Thanks to U.S. warplanes that covered their landing, paratroopers met no enemy resistance. The threat from an estimated 100,000 Iraqi troops dug in along the line separating the Kurdish-controlled region from the rest of the country never materialized.

“I saw no enemy soldiers” said Capt. Kyle Hadlock, commander of Headquarters and Headquarters Co., 508th PIR. “I landed in mud that became my enemy until the next day.”

Beyond securing oil fields, another task for the brigade, as with many other U.S. units in the country, is to provide a semblance, of order following the war. Two rival Kurdish factions–the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan–dominate the north. In Mosul, Kurds have reportedly forced Arabs from their homes, set up checkpoints to search cars and charged customers at gunpoint to enter gas stations.

Al Qaeda-linked, Tehran-backed

One potentially nasty foe the 173rd trained to fight in Iraq was the al Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Islam. Holed up in mountainous villages on the border with Iran, the group of some 700 Islamic extremists had been fighting against the secular Kurdish government of northern Iraq–out of Saddam Hussein’s control since 1991–for nearly two years. The group also had been blamed for several terrorist attacks in northern Iraq.

The Kurds say Ansar al-Islam is backed and funded by Tehran. About 150 of the group’s members are thought to be pro-Taliban fighters who escaped from Afghanistan in late 2001. They include members from Algeria and other Arab countries.

In late March, 100 U.S. Special Forces and 10,000 Kurdish pesh merga (“those who face death”) troops struck Ansar guerrillas, killing between 150-200 and capturing two, including a Palestinian from the Gaza Strip. Documents, such as the Jihad Encyclopedia, and information from the prisoners confirmed the group’s al Qaeda links.

“One of the problems with al Qaeda is that it is not a clearly identifiable organization,” explained a Special Forces officer involved in the attack. “They don’t wear an al Qaeda uniform or carry an al Qaeda passport, but they launch out these professionals who train and start groups.”

Vets Provide Link to Home

Since members of the 173rd deployed to Iraq, their families and the unit’s veterans have been able to stay connected with them in ways never experienced in past wars. The Web site for the Society of the 173rd Airborne Brigade–www.173rdairborne.com–has become a magnet for friends and relatives of those deployed in Iraq.

Though U.S. operations in northern Iraq have been successful, an unfortunate incident on May 3 resulted in the death of a 173rd trooper.

According to the Pentagon, Sgt. Sean C. Reynolds of the brigade’s 74th Long-Range Surveillance Company was “climbing a ladder when he fell,” causing his M-9 pistol to accidentally discharge.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning

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