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U.S. paratrooper anything but typical

IN NORTHERN IRAQ—If Alan Skrapke were a professional football player, the trainers would have carried him off the field and put him on crutches for weeks.

But Pfc. Skrapke isn't a football player. He's a U.S. paratrooper. And when he wrenched his knee after dropping out of a jet into a pitch-black airfield here last week, he and his sergeants decided there was only one option: Get up, hoist his 120-pound rucksack onto his back, and plod as best he could to the assembly point.

Six football fields away.

"All I'm thinking is, I'm alone in Iraq and I need to hurry up and find some people," Skrapke recalled Saturday, still limping, four days after the 173rd Airborne Brigade jumped into this Kurdish-controlled region. "I didn't even think about the pain. I fell down and grabbed it, and then got back up and tried to go."

When the soldiers of the 173rd put down their M-4 rifles, their kevlar helmets, their kneepads and their body armor, many look like typical 20-somethings. Skrapke, a bespectacled, gangly, polite 22-year-old native of Enid, Okla., looks younger and more unassuming than most.

But they aren't typical. They volunteered to jump out of airplanes, and some of them volunteered again for the two-month ordeal that is Army Ranger school. Even the least assuming among them is capable of extraordinary things.

Skrapke, of Able Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Airborne Infantry, wasn't alone in toughing through an injury after jumping onto the muddy ground of northern Iraq. One paratrooper was cut in the arm by a dislodged static line, the cord to which they hook their parachutes before exiting the plane. He is recuperating at the airfield. Two others were evacuated, one with a broken leg and one with an injured back.

Skrapke landed safely and then got hurt as he was trying to hoist his rucksack. "I went to throw my ruck on," he said, "and my whole body twisted but my foot stayed in the same place."

After Skrapke struggled to where he was supposed to be, a medic gave him some pain reliever. Then, like the rest of the soldiers, he hunkered down and spent the night, the next day and a second night wrapped in his parachute to stay warm.

On the third day, the brigade moved most of its troops to a mountain fortress controlled by a Kurdish militia.

Another thing about Skrapke: He isn't primarily an infantryman, as most of the paratroopers are. He's a chemical warfare specialist, one of a dozen attached to the brigade.

He also went to paratrooper school, which is why he got attached to the 173rd. It was only his ninth jump, including five training jumps in school.

"I originally wanted to be an Air Force pilot, but I couldn't, because of my eyesight, so I thought I could at least jump out of planes," he said.


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