KILLEEN, Texas—Machine-gun tracer rounds streaked scarlet across a muddy field at Fort Hood, home of the 1st Cavalry Division.
"The guy manning that .50-caliber is our computer geek," said Capt. Joe Berg, referring to Sgt. Liu Turner.
Most mornings might find Turner maintaining high-tech communications equipment aboard his squadron's multimillion-dollar armored vehicles. But on one day in December, the communications specialist from Willingboro, N.J., was cross-training on a heavy machine gun that spat round after deafening round at rising and falling targets.
For Turner, Berg and their colleagues in the 1st Cavalry, the goal is to be ready for anything.
The 1st Cavalry—which rode horses till World War II, then jeeps and trucks in the Pacific and Korean wars, and Huey helicopters in Vietnam—today rides the M1A3 Abrams tank and is the heaviest, deadliest force on any battlefield.
The division, which boasts one of the military's richest unit histories, is the nation's only armored contingency force. That means its 17,000 troops are ready to be deployed anywhere in the world on short notice.
It is likely to be among the first dispatched to Iraq, if President Bush issues the call. Bush visited the division Friday.
Technology distinguishes the modern force from even its most recent ancestors.
For instance, the digital radios that Turner helps maintain are one-quarter the weight and half the size of those used in Operation Desert Storm just a decade ago.
"The revolution is in command and control," said Berg, a 25-year-old native of Statesboro, Ga.
The new technologies keep such close track of units and vehicles that fewer are needed to deliver the same firepower. And the Pentagon says the new weapons are more accurate.
With the new capability, "we can find and destroy an enemy at much longer distances," said Maj. Gen. Joe Peterson, the division's commander.
But not everything at Fort Hood would be foreign to Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, who rode with the 7th into history at the Little Bighorn. Miles across the base from the firing range, a volunteer member of the elite Horse Platoon cleared manure from stalls that house 41 horses, which are used for ceremonial and public relations functions.
The 1st Cav officially formed at Texas' Fort Bliss in 1921. But units that would become part of the division go back much farther, and their veterans include such familiar names as Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and John J. Pershing.
More recently, the list includes Gens. George S. Patton and Jonathan M. Wainwright. Gen. Tommy Franks of U.S. Central Command, who will command in the Persian Gulf, and Gen. Eric Shinseki, the current Army chief of staff, also served with the division.
In World War II, the division's "flying column" was instrumental in capturing Manila. Christened the "First Team," it got the honor of leading Allied forces into Tokyo.
During the Korean War, the division led the breakout from the Pusan perimeter and was first into Pyongyang, North Korea's capital.
Cavalry soldiers were portrayed in the recent Mel Gibson film "We Were Soldiers." The film depicts a 1965 battle in Ia Drang Valley. Two of the division's 34 Medals of Honor earned during Vietnam were awarded at Ia Drang.
Upon its return from Vietnam in 1972, the 1st Cavalry was moved to Fort Hood and became a "tri-capability" division, an experimental concept that meant it employed armor, infantry and aviation. The continuing Cold War prompted the Pentagon to convert the division again, this time to heavy armor in 1975.
In the Persian Gulf War, the 1st Cavalry Division was the first to attack Iraqi positions.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): first+cavalry