BASHUR, Iraq—Sometime before midnight Wednesday, Chalk Six, an Air Force C-17 jet carrying 99 paratroopers from the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade, finished its gut-churning descent into Kurdish territory.
Many of the men had dozed through much of the four-hour, 45-minute flight from their air base in Europe. Now they were standing, their giant, green rucksacks fastened around their waists, their parachutes hooked to two steel lines that ran down each side of the vast jet toward the two doors.
The jet engines emitted a deafening whine during the steep dive, then fell eerily quiet. Suddenly, dust and wind whipped through the plane as the two doors, marked "Emergency Exit Only," were thrust open.
The lights of an Iraqi Kurdish village were visible below.
"One minute," yelled the jumpmasters, 1st Sgt. Timothy Watson and Sgt. 1st Class Jason Gueringer, each holding up a single finger for those out of earshot in the rear.
Some men were throwing up.
Others were on their knees, sagging under the weight of their gear. The largest combat parachute assault since World War II was under way.
From 15 jet planes, the 173rd Airborne dropped nearly 1,000 of its soldiers onto Kurdish-controlled Bashur airfield northeast of Irbil, in what commanders hoped would be a first step toward opening a northern front in Iraq.
The United States intended the operation to be a "show of force," aimed not only at Saddam Hussein, but also at Turkey and at Kurdish warlords.
But with the doors open and the chutes rigged, the men of Chalk Six were not thinking about strategic considerations. They were wondering if anyone would shoot at them as they floated helplessly to earth, or whether their parachutes would become entangled, or whether they could hit the ground at 17 mph without breaking a leg.
There were men on Chalk Six who had jumped dozens of times, and there were men who hadn't jumped since paratroop school.
There were lots of men with young children, and one, Pfc. Neri Lattimore, 20, whose fiancee is due to give birth in April.
They knew that the brigade surgeon was jumping with them, and they knew why. They knew that and laughed at it.
Earlier, they had loaded ammunition on an open field at their air base listening to "Blood upon the Risers," a strange, a cappella anthem of paratroop bravado sung to the tune of "Battle Hymn of the Republic": "Glory, glory what a helluva way to die," goes the chorus, "And he ain't gonna jump no more He hit the ground the sound was splat, the blood went spurting high There was blood upon the risers, there was brains upon his chute."
The soldiers had been told that they had just 58 seconds to get out of the plane, and that "jumping the red light"—sneaking out a second or two after the stop signal flashes—would not be allowed, since it could mean death as the C-17 powered up to make its violent escape from Iraqi airspace. But none of them wanted to be the one who didn't get his "mustard stain," as they call the gold insignia that denotes a parachute jump in combat.
They also knew that every man who did not jump was one less defender should things go wrong on the ground.
"Remember, men, no baby steps—walk right out that door with a purpose," Watson, the primary jumpmaster, screamed to the paratroops. "We've got one second between jumps, and we've got to get every rifle on the ground."
Then the amber jump light turned green.
"Go, go, go!"
Laden with more than 100 pounds of gear, the men sprang into fast motion, pouring out of the two doors at numbing speed. Those who stumbled or hesitated were pushed by the two "safeties," paratroopers whose job is to stay on the plane and to coordinate the jump.
Fifty-eight seconds later, the light turned red just as the last jumpers had cleared each door. The plane banked steeply and climbed away in what one of the pilots called "the most aggressive exit I have ever seen."
Only 36 jumpers didn't manage to leap out of the 15 jets.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064):
20030327 USIRAQ paratroop