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Getting a real close look at paratroopers jumping into Iraq

NEAR BASHUR IN NORTHERN IRAQ—When I told Lt. Col. Dominic Caraccilo that I wanted to watch from one of the jets as his paratroopers jumped into northern Iraq, he looked at his first sergeant and said, "We'll put a monkey strap on him."

I had no idea what he was talking about. When I walked up the back ramp of the giant C-17 sitting on the tarmac at an air base in Europe last week, I learned that the plan was for me to wear a harness hooked to the floor, so I could stand near the doors as the troopers exited and not get sucked out.

I was told to lie down and hold on as the plane descended, and also as it sped away after the jump.

Nothing could have prepared me for the drama of standing 2 feet away from 99 paratroopers pouring out of an airplane in 58 seconds.

One minute I was flying smoothly in a jet that felt like any ordinary commercial flight, though it looked completely different. The Air Force had served a boxed lunch, and soldiers were dozing in their seats.

The next minute, the lights dimmed to red, the engines screamed and I was pulled to the floor as the plane dove from 30,000 feet to 1,200. Tension grew as the aircraft leveled off, the whine abated and men thrust open the two giant emergency hatches.

Cold wind gusted inside and I could see the patchy lights of northern Iraq below.

In a blur of motion, the soldiers flew out the door, lugging 120-pound rucksacks fastened to their waists and rifles stuffed into canvas bags.

Suddenly the cavernous jet was nearly empty, and it began its violent exit out of Iraqi airspace.

"This is the ugliest exit I have ever seen," I overheard one of the pilots saying, remarking on the speed and angle of the escape from the drop zone, which was in a valley surrounded by mountains. He added: "Don't use that. Call it `an aggressive exit.'"

I wondered what was happening to them, these men I had gotten to know by face and by name. And I knew it would be five hours before I got back to the air base in Europe and could find out.


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

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