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Soldiers from Fort Hood ready to go overseas

FORT HOOD, Texas—Singing "Got to be strong till I get back home," a column of soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division marched toward a deployment ceremony at Fort Hood, Texas, on Thursday, sending a message to U.S. soldiers fighting overseas: We're on the way.

The division began sending advanced teams to Kuwait this week to prepare for the division's 16,000 soldiers who will reinforce the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, the 101st Airborne Division and the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. Thirty or more ships laden with tanks, rocket launchers and helicopters are moving south from the Mediterranean Sea to meet the division. The Pentagon said this week that those ships will begin unloading Tuesday.

Spirits were high as soldiers gathered with their families to listen to the commanding general of the division, Gen. Raymond Odierno, steel their resolve. "Our purpose is just, our mission is clear, and this task force is ready," he told the crowd of several thousand.

Soldiers yelled "Hoo-Ha" when the cannons cracked and a cloud of white smoke drifted across the field. Speakers described how the division fought during D-Day and liberated Paris, how its soldiers slogged through the jungles of Vietnam. Now for the first time in 34 years, the division encased its flags to enter battle again.

Capt. Frank Leija, 29, from Los Angeles, stood in the front row with his wife, Luisa, and three children. "I wanted my daughter, Alexys, to get a sense of pride about what her father is doing," he said.

In a sea of black berets, Sonya Winder, 28, from just outside of Washington, D.C., smiled and laughed with her friends. She's also deploying, leaving behind her husband and three children. Her husband is also in the Army.

"He was excited for me to go, but it's been a challenge trying to train him to take care of the children," she said. Winder, who works in a supply unit like the one ambushed earlier this week, said she believes in the war and is willing to do what her country asks of her.

War planners had wanted soldiers such as Winder and others in the 4th Division to play an earlier role in the war, securing a northern front in a drive against Baghdad. In January, the division packed its ships and waited for orders to deploy to Turkey. But a parliamentary vote there forced the Pentagon to revise its plan for the highly advanced division, which uses computers to link fighting units together. Since then, soldiers at Fort Hood waited for orders.

Talking to reporters afterward, Odierno said the wait caused some anxiety, but is an advantage.

"We've learned," he said. "We're ready."


(John Sullivan reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer.)


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

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-DISPATCHES-SULLIVAN