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Vignettes for elite unit's pre-jump preparations

AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy—One thousand paratroops from the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade jumped into northern Iraq on Wednesday night. Here are some vignettes on the elite unit's pre-jump preparations:

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As the paratroops stood at attention Wednesday morning at their airbase at Aviano in Italy, brigade commander Col. William Mayville said:

"Throughout the world people are sleeping in warm beds.

``Tonight they will not know that you will be lying in heavy mud nor will they know that you'll be patrolling broken ground with heavy loads.

``You are the finest human beings on this earth from the finest country on this planet, the United States of America, and you will never fail."

The latest weather report from the drop zone at Bashur in northern Iraq is that after two days of steady rain the ground is saturated, and there is standing water ankle deep. That should make for a softer landing.

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There's no calling in sick for a combat operation. Even if you have to make a parachute jump with a 100-pound load, you're 39 years old, and you haven't kept food down for three days. Even if it's freezing and rainy on the drop zone.

That was Capt. Eugene Martin's plight as he readied himself to participate in the 173rd Airborne Brigade's air assault into northern Iraq.

Martin, a native of Chambersburg, Pa., is a logistics officer for the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Airborne Infantry, known as "The Rock," after its most famous jump into Corregidor in the Philippines in World War II.

Martin's job is making sure the men and equipment are where they're supposed to be, but he jumps with a load and a rifle like everyone else. On Tuesday, as a warm sun shone down on the soldiers loading their weapons at Aviano Air Base in northern Italy, Martin walked around with a clipboard, performing last checks. Behind him, the grey Air Force C-17 jets that would carry the men were lined up on the tarmac. The Dolomite Mountains formed a stunning backdrop.

Martin looked pale and spent.

"I'm worried about you," another officer said.

"I'll just suck it up," Martin replied. "I'm hoping to sweat it out tonight."

Martin wasn't even supposed to be there. He was leaving the Army, retiring with his wife and three children to his family's Pennsylvania dairy farm, when war preparations began, and the Pentagon implemented a "stop-loss" order freezing such departures.

Martin wasn't complaining. He was too busy. But on Tuesday, he stopped to marvel at the sight of hundreds of airborne troopers readying their gear.

"People are terrified of paratroopers," he said with a smile. "Always have been."

Later, asked how he felt, he answered with a weak grin: "Terrible."

He added: "And I'm scared—don't forget to put that down. I'm scared."

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Capt. Eric Baus has jumped out of airplanes so many times that he's lost count.

But never in combat.

Baus, a native of Collingswood, N.J., commands Able Company, one of the 503rd's three rifle companies. That makes him the conductor of a 100-part orchestra of lethality.

His dad grew up in Northeast Philadelphia, something Baus made known when he greeted a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter with a pop quiz: "What's the greatest moment in Eagles history?"

The reporter, who grew up a New England Patriots fan, came up empty.

"You're kidding!" he shook his head and patiently recounted what Eagles fans call "The Body Bag Game," when several Washington Redskins starters were injured as the Eagles defeated Washington in the 1990 National Football Conference playoffs.

Baus, 30, has two children ages 5 and 3. His wife, the former Jennifer Blasko, is pregnant with a third and will go home to New Jersey to have it.

He joined ROTC and graduated from the University of Scranton after serving as an enlisted soldier in the Pennsylvania National Guard.

"I never expected to make the Army a full-time job," he said.

Now he's an Army Ranger who also spent time as a Ranger instructor.

He has performed more than 90 parachute jumps.

His men are stepping into an ethnic hornet's nest, a stew of historic grievances between Iraqis, Kurds and Turks.

"This is what I need you to do," he told them. "I need you to keep these people on our side but not take sides. What that means is, treat everybody professionally. Be a professional U.S. soldier on the ground."

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Even when no one is shooting at you, a parachute jump is a risky endeavor.

"Try driving your car 17 miles an hour and jumping out," explained Lt. Col Dominic Caraccilo, a Newark, N.J. native and the commander of the 2nd Battalion (Airborne) of the 503rd Infantry.

This isn't weekend skydiving, where you float gently to earth from a comfortable altitude. In training, paratroopers jump from 1,000 feet, and in combat that's usually cut to 500. It typically takes less than 10 seconds for them to hit the ground—hard.

Jumping as they do with weapons and huge packs, mishaps are inevitable. The brigade surgeon jumps in, too, to stabilize the wounded.

Deaths from jump injuries are not unheard of.

Commanders projected 37 injuries for Wednesday's 1,000-person jump into northern Iraq and bet that four of them would be serious enough to require evacuation.

For bumps and bruises, there is another solution.

"We're going to put a boot in his ass and motivate him to move out," said Able Company 1st Sgt. Timothy Watson, 35, of Columbus, Ohio.

Tales of training jump miseries abound, but perhaps the most dramatic recent misfortune befell Spc. Ernesto Perez of Chicago.

In October, the brigade did a training jump in Hoenfels, Germany. Perez landed chest-first on a large rock.

It wasn't until he marched seven miles to the assembly point that he realized he was badly hurt.

Suddenly he could barely breathe. He was rushed out by Humvee, then ambulance. He spent two days in intensive care, having suffered a heart contusion.

Perez laughed as he told the story, surrounded by his platoon buddies.

He jumped into Iraq Wednesday night.

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Every ounce of extra weight in his pack is a curse for a paratrooper. On this mission, for example, the alternative drop zone—to be used in case something went wrong at Bashur—was 35 miles away in Irbil. That would mean walking to Bashur—a long hike with 100-plus pounds on your back.

Even as they try to cut weight, the soldiers still manage to tuck a few personal items into their rucksacks: books, candy, cigarettes, photos.

By far the most common extra items are chewing tobacco and snuff.

It seems as if half the brigade are tobacco addicts. They schemed to stuff their packs with the stuff and put more in their "A" bags, the duffels that are flown in after the jump.

Spc. Brandon Leamont put 20 cans of snuff in his "A" bag and four in his ruck.

When they run out, Staff Sgt. Joel Fehl said, the troops will write to their favorite tobacco companies, which will mail them a case, gratis.

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(Dilanian reports from Rome, Italy for The Philadelphia Inquirer.)

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

Iraq

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