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On eve of war, infantrymen wage private battles

ASSEMBLY AREA BALER, Kuwait—If you ask an infantry soldier what he's fighting for, it usually has nothing to do with grand ideals or even protecting loved ones back home. When battle comes, an infantry soldier fights for the man to his left and his right, and for little else. Combat breeds a sense of camaraderie that's impossible to find anywhere else.

A million things go through an infantryman's mind on the eve of war. He thinks about his loved ones. He wonders how he'll perform under fire. But mostly he worries about not letting his buddies down and making it back alive.

On the eve of combat, each infantry soldier fights his own battle in his own way.

The men of Apache Company, 1-30th Infantry, Task Force 3-7 Infantry, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, will be among the first American soldiers to enter Iraq. Here are some sketches of them as they awaited word Tuesday morning to attack.

Second Lt. Mike Washburn, 32, of Yorktown, Va., has been waiting for war all of his 13 years in the Army. A former noncommissioned officer with the 75th Ranger Regiment, he became an officer last year.

"It may be bad. It may be ugly. I may regret the day that I ever came here, but unless we go, I'll never know if I can stand that ultimate test. This is the ultimate challenge for me, to lead a platoon into battle."

Sgt. Kreskin Smith, 30, of Auburn, Ala., doesn't share the optimism of many of his fellow soldiers that the fight will be easy.

"I'm pretty nervous," he said. "I don't know what to expect from it. Even the guys who were in Desert Storm are pretty nervous. I just don't think it's going to be a walk in the park. It's going to be far from that. The man just don't got nothin' to lose. If comes down to it, he's going to let loose with everything he's got and make a final stand in Baghdad."

Staff Sgt. Andrew Allen, 37, from Elk City, Okla., commands a Bradley fighting vehicle in 3rd platoon, Apache 1-30. He sipped a cup of coffee the morning before Apache was to depart for the border, and pondered what lay ahead and what he'd been through so far. Allen lost his mother after a long illness 12 days ago.

"I chose not to go home," he said, squinting at the sun. "I made my peace with her before I left. And I've got a job to do here. I'll mourn when I get home."

Allen knew that the prospect of avoiding a war was fading fast.

"I'm not one who wants to go out and kill somebody just for the hell of it," he said. "I'll do it in a heartbeat, if it comes to it. I won't hesitate. But I'm still hoping it can be settled peacefully."

He worried about letting his men down.

"I've got three people in my crew," he said. "All I'm worried about is not messing up and getting someone else hurt. I'm not worried about myself."

First Lt. Jamie Ayers is Apache Company's fire support officer. That means he'll be the one who calls in artillery strikes if Apache Company gets pinned down in a tough fight. Ayers, from Homer, Ga., celebrated his 26th birthday two days ago. This morning, he received a package in the mail with a cassette recorder and a cassette from his fiancee, Stephanie Richards, from Sugar Hill, Ga.

Ayers walked over to his company commander, Capt. John Whyte, and held the cassette recorder aloft. His fiancee was singing "Happy Birthday" to him. In the background, a dog barked. "It's just a Daschund mixed mutt," Ayers said. "A little bitty small wienie dog."

"Talk about something that'll make you homesick," Ayers said.

"It's heartbreaking, almost." He shook his head, waved his hand dismissively and started off toward the other side of his vehicle. "I almost wish I didn't get that thing."

All morning the troops of Apache Company were breaking down the camp where they had spent the last three weeks. There were weapons to clean, food and water to redistribute, tents to break down. Soldiers tossed garbage bags onto a burning pyre. The bags were full of everything imaginable. Paperback novels, magazines, extra candy and snacks from home, excess odds and ends. If it couldn't fit in a soldier's ruck, it didn't go. Whatever was left behind got burned.

The still morning air was punctuated only by the sound of radio static and the crackle of various elements of Task Force 3-7 Infantry calling in radio checks. A voice from task force headquarters announced that troops should be ready to move in four hours.

Seated on the rear ramp of his M113 armored personnel carrier, company 1st Sgt. Michael "Todd" Hibbs, 36, of Boise, Idaho, cleaned his M-4 rifle and made a last check of his gear. Hibbs, a tall, commanding figure whose presence seemed to instill respect in the men, asked a passing soldier if he had his "war face on."

"I gotta tell you, I ain't worried," Hibbs said. "I'm really not. I'm just kinda all at peace inside right now. It sounds kinda gay, I know. But I'm just at peace."

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(Knight Ridder military correspondent Drew Brown is a former Army Ranger and a combat veteran of the 1989 invasion of Panama.)

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

Iraq

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