OUTSIDE KIRKUK, Iraq—This is what happens when events overtake the Army's ability to plan for them.
A company of more than 140 soldiers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade was rushed south Thursday into what was expected to be a decisive firefight over the strategically important city of Kirkuk. The soldiers carried only their weapons, ammunition, radios, water and light clothing. I went with them.
By the time they arrived, there was no one to fight: Iraqi opposition had abandoned most of the city hours earlier. So the paratroopers, most of whom had been steeling themselves for their first-ever combat experience, were left sitting on flatbed trucks in the punishing sun for hours as their leaders figured out what to do next.
The troops watched cheering Kurds drive past into the newly liberated city.
Finally, Able Company began moving, and after hours more of maddening fits and starts it was decided that it would set up a blocking position near a Kirkuk oil field. There was nothing to block, and every soldier knew it. The oil field was deserted, and remained that way.
Their battalion leaders gave this order as they settled into the heated building where they were setting up headquarters.
When Able arrived at its position at the oil field, the soldiers learned that their gear, including food and warm clothing, would not be joining them. The battalion's logistics officers somehow failed to transport it.
Dressed only in their camouflage uniforms and T-shirts, with nothing to cover them, the paratroopers lay on the cold ground and shivered through the desert night without complaining, spooning one another for body heat.
The next morning, they abandoned the position, and began the laborious task—on empty stomachs—of checking buildings in a massive airfield the brigade is occupying.
When food didn't arrive until late Friday afternoon—after every last Tootsie Roll had been scrounged from every last cargo pocket—the soldiers took it in stride, although they looked exhausted. But some of the company's officers and sergeants were furious.
"We can put a robot on Mars, but we can't get Joe his chow?" muttered Sgt. 1st Class Jason Gueringer of Los Angeles, 2nd Platoon's squad leader, who by then had eaten half a meal in 24 hours, sharing the other half with his men.
"Should that have happened? No," said Lt. Col. Dominic Caraccilo of Seneca Falls, N.Y., commander of the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry. "It tears my heart out. But sometimes you have to go with what you've got, to the detriment of the individual troops. No one died, and no one got scurvy."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.