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War has way of connecting people

RUMAITHA, Iraq—Two days before he would go to war, Spc. Michael Crider, 21, was flat on his cot. The orders to leave Kuwait for Iraq hadn't come yet but were expected anytime.

All around him, the men of Alpha Company, 3rd battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, were winding down toward lights-out: a card game at one bunk, a DVD playing on a laptop a few cots down.

Crider, of Charlotte, N.C., was praying.

In another barracks, Lt. Anthony Mitchell, 28, from nearby Rock Hill, S.C., was thinking of his family.

The two men—both in the 82nd Airborne Division and both from the same region of the country—don't know each other. But war can have a way of connecting people even if they never know the other's name.

Mitchell, "LT" to his men, has seen more of the Army and a little more of life than Crider. Mitchell is a burly, teddy bear of a man. He played varsity football, basketball and ran track in high school but also worked with youngsters in the anti-drug DARE program. In the middle of pre-combat angst, he exuded a gentle demeanor.

He has two girls and a boy, ages 5, 3 and 11 months.

"The main thing (my wife) focuses on, she says the kids are fine," he said. "She wants me to focus on my job here."

The ranks of the 82nd Airborne Division are loaded with heavily armed young men like these, unencumbered by adult supervision, a population likely to be teeming with battle lust. But other motivations have a higher priority.

Crider is a confident 5-foot-11, 200-pound dynamo with well-toned muscles. He likes Jim Carrey movies and loves his girlfriend, Laurin, who is still a cheerleader at Olympic High School where he graduated.

"Since I've been here and things have stepped up," Crider said, "I (pray) a little more. But the faith has always been there."

Immersed in the heat and sandstorms that bedeviled troops as the war began, he was trying to distract himself. He had exercised four times that day: weights, jumping rope and running twice. He ate lunch in the wing of the sand-soiled mess tent where he could not hear the giant screen television that was constantly belting out war news on Fox or CNN.

"If you think about it too much," he said, "you're just going to stress yourself out."

Mitchell, for his part, focused on keeping the 82nd Airborne moving.

He helps run the 407th Forward Support Battalion, the unit that gets ammo, food, water and other supplies to soldiers like Crider.

"If anything breaks," Mitchell said, "we fix it.

"We talk about the small things: `Are our weapons functioning properly? Are the night vision (goggles) functioning properly?' " he said. "We try to concentrate on taking care of each other."

That commitment has now been tested under fire.

The 82nd is the Army's only all-paratrooper division, so when the orders to go into Iraq finally came at the end of March, the specifics brought some disappointment. The legendary paratroop division, whose mottos include, "You call, we fall," was instructed to drive—that's right, DRIVE—into Iraq to secure the coalition's supply line instead of parachuting in to secure Baghdad airport, as military planners had hoped.

"Most (of my battalion) were excited just to get to do something," Mitchell said. "But some were disappointed. Jumping out of airplanes is what we do."

He knew things could change "10,000 times in the next hour," and he had heard the reports of a small caravan from another unit taking a wrong turn, getting ambushed and, then, captured or executed. Before setting out that day, he insisted on a well-planned route and extra attention by his drivers.

His greatest fear: the unknown.

Ahead of Mitchell's convoy, Crider's unit, which patrolled for paramilitary militia in a string of cities along the Euphrates River, was close to the shelling of U.S. positions by Iraqi mortars.

"The bombs went off closer than I've heard them," he said later, as he pulled security duty at a checkpoint in Rumaitha, a city about 100 miles south of Baghdad that the 82nd occupied on Sunday. He was worried about the supply convoy.

But Mitchell's caravan got through. It included a truckload of mail and in one of the gold canvas bags was a letter to Crider from his girlfriend.

"She loves me," he said, sweating in a flak vest and helmet. "And she'll be there."

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(Johnson reports for The Charlotte Observer)

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

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