In a military culture in which bragging about combat is considered poor taste, soldiers who have routed Iraqis in the open desert or flushed Taliban from caves in Afghanistan let a simple patch tell the story: Unit insignias on the right shoulder mean you've been in combat.
Many of the young soldiers eagerly awaiting orders at Fort Hood, Texas, and Fort Riley, Kan., hope to do some sewing soon.
"People see that patch on your right shoulder and they know you've executed what we all train for year after year," said Capt. Bryan Miller, 30, of Staten Island, N.Y. Miller is part of the 4th Infantry Division, a group of about 33,000 soldiers and support personnel who have orders to go, but nowhere to land. There are some 12,500 soldiers stationed at Fort Hood.
Military planners thought the technically advanced division known as Task Force Ironhorse would play a key role in the war, sweeping down from Turkey to open a northern front. Those plans changed when the Turkish Parliament rejected a resolution allowing the country's bases to be used as U.S. staging areas.
Now 36 ships holding some of the most sophisticated computerized weaponry in the U.S. arsenal are bobbing in the Mediterranean Sea near Turkey.
Earlier this week the Army's chief of staff, Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, told the division commander, Maj. Gen. Ray T. Odierno, that the 4th would deploy, according to a division spokesperson. But so far, there has been no precise directive. Even if orders arrive today, it could take weeks for the division to be supplied and to engage the enemy.
"We are prepared to do peace-keeping or full combat," said Maj. Josslyn Aberle, a spokeswoman for the 4th.
Last week, soldiers stood in lines to collect desert battle dress uniforms, which only added to the frustration.
"It's kind of a hard feeling not knowing," said Miller. "It's like watching the game from the sideline when you could be playing," he says as he sits in a bare office he packed up months ago.
And while a handful of soldiers from units at Fort Hood have deployed, so many remain that the largest military base in the world is overwhelmed. Some soldiers are living in storage closets. That's because soldiers who lived off base packed up their homes and apartments two months ago and moved into Fort Hood thinking they would leave in just days. Now the base is packed with soldiers. There aren't even enough bullets for soldiers to qualify at the shooting ranges.
Further north at Fort Riley, a tank battalion and infantry unit from the 3rd Brigade, 1st Armored Division left for Kuwait weeks ago. Meanwhile another Fort Riley tank unit, the 1st Battalion, 13th Armor, awaits final orders to deploy. Battalion commanders say they can't yet divulge their destination or say what their mission will be, but soldiers said they hear rumors that they are going to Kuwait. They said they are frustrated they might miss much of the ground war in Iraq.
"I want to be in the tanks, on the border, ready to go," said PV2 James Clinkscales, a 20-year-old tank loader from Texas.
Whether he and his fellow soldiers join a later wave of combat or whether they help provide stability as Iraq rebuilds is not clear.
"Either way, it's a noble mission," said Spc. Anthony Lemanquais, a 24-year-old tank driver from Torrington, Conn.
Some feel thankful for the extra time with their families. The battalion commander, Lt. Col. Frank Sherman, has a pregnant wife. "If I get another day to spend with her," he said, "I'll take it."
Miller said his wife is also expecting a child.
"My family is important to me, but the Army is important to me too," he said. Important enough that he's willing to do a little sewing if he needs to move his patch.
(Sullivan reported from Fort Hood, Texas. Potter reported from Fort Riley, Kan.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-FORT