War with Iraq

Posted on Tue, Mar. 11, 2003 story:PUB_DESC
Ken Dilanian
Ken Dilanian
Ken Dilanian

Ken Dilanian is The Inquirer's Rome correspondent. He came to Rome in November after stints in Philadelphia's City Hall Bureau and the state Capital Bureau in Harrisburg. He will be accompanying the 173d Airborne Brigade.
Email Dilanian with questions and comments at iraqjournal@phillynews.com.

Editor's Note: Ken Dilanian updates this personal diary when he has the opportunity. During the course of the war, he will not be updating as quickly.

March 20, 2003

Vicenza, Italy - The war hasn't started yet for the 173d Airborne Brigade, but it's close. The problem is, like a lot of embedded reporters right now, I can't tell you what I know because it could give away an operation that requires strict secrecy.

What I can do is share what it's been like getting to know these guys. My cushy life in this picturesque city came to an abrupt end at 0615 Tuesday, when I showed up at Able Company headquarters to do PT, or physical training, with the paratroopers.

On this particular day, they were scheduled to do a nine-mile march with their full rucksacks, which can weigh upwards of 80 pounds. I was told to stuff my civilian backpack with whatever I'd be bringing, strap on my body armor and come along.

"Don't be a hero - fill your pack with newspapers," the public affairs officer, Lt. Col Tom Collins, had advised the night before. I settled for cheating by leaving out half my gear.

As turns out, I got lucky; force protection measures meant the troops were confined to post while in uniform, so we had to do laps around the relatively small installation, and the march was cut in half. With my light load, it wasn't too bad. But pick up one of their packs, and you'd see what great shape these guys are in. And they jump out of airplanes with them.

I spent the time talking with 2d Platoon's First Sergeant Jason Gueringer, 31, a tall, good-natured Los Angeles native who had been helping me out with equipment and logistics. He joined the army out of high school, and now he's the go-to-guy for these 35 young troopers. Like 60 percent of army personnel, he's married; he's also the father of two 13-year-old twin girls and a baby boy.

Gueringer's thoughts about his chosen career, and this war, may sound hokey as I write them, but they didn't when he said it, straining under the weight of his pack. He's in it to make a difference, to make the world a better place. He thinks liberating Iraq will help more people than it hurts, by a long shot.

As we walked, he cited a few universal soldier laments, including the fact that the pay can be so low that, even after a recent raise, some families qualify for food stamps and other government assistance. I had heard that before, of course, but the absurdity cut deeper as I was surrounded by young soldiers preparing to risk their lives.

"That's just wrong," he said. "When some guys makes $30 million for playing baseball, and these guys are putting their lives on the line for their country ..."

Which brings me to the issue I said I would address in the last dispatch: Whether those of us who are embedded will be able to report objectively on the soldiers we follow.

Television journalist Jeff Gralnick, who reported in Vietnam, offered this take on it recently:

"Once you get into a unit, you are going to be co-opted. It is not a purposeful thing, it will just happen. It's a little like the Stockholm Syndrome. You will fall in with a bunch of grunts, experience and share their hardships and fears, and then you will feel for them and care about them. You will wind up loving them and hating their officers and commanders and the administration that put them (and you) in harm's way. Ernie Pyle loved his grunts; Jack Laurance and Michael Herr loved theirs, and I loved mine. And as we all know, love blinds and in blinding it will alter the reporting you thought you were going to do. Trust me. It happens, and it will happen no matter how much you guard against it."

He's right, of course. I can feel it happening already. How can you not love these guys? How can you not respect the decency of someone like 2d Platoon Commander Larry Lee of San Francisco, who decided I needed a Camelback hydration system and promptly loaned me one he bought with his own money? Or Pfc. Alan Scrapke, who at Lee's direction patiently gave me some quickie training in how to don a chemical weapons suit. Or Pfc. Neri Lattimore, 20, whose financee is due to give birth while he's at war, who quietly pondered the idea that some of the men are bound to freeze up during their first experience under fire.

Or Sgt. Jay Pasion, another young father, who married an Italian girl and told me three times how worried his wife was about him going into combat. Or Sgt. Joel Fehl, also a dad, who always seems to be smiling and is quick to explain what's really going on when it’s not readily apparent.

In these troops - black, white, Hispanic and Asian, from all parts of the country and all walks of life - lies the strength of the American idea. There's no way not to be seduced by that.

Does that mean I wouldn't write about it if one of them shot an Iraqi civilian in the back? Of course not. I don't think that would happen, but if it did I wouldn’t hesitate, and they know that.

Gralnick was off about one thing, though: It may have been easy to hate the officers in Vietnam, but these guys seem to admire and respect their leaders, and it's easy to see why. The commander of the battallion I've been hanging around (the 2d of the 503d), Col. Dominic Caraccilo, is a fiery, blunt-talking Newark native who, when not theatrically threatening to rip his subordinate's arms out of their sockets, is backslapping with them like peers. A veteran of the Persian Gulf and other combat operations, Caracillo is also author of a book on e-commerce and two works on military history.

The 173d Airborne Brigade Commander, Col. William Mayville - who jumped into combat in Panama - also comes across as a thoughtful, exacting leader. Listening to these officers talk makes the military obfuscation during the Vietnam War seem like a distant memory, which it is. My impressions can't help but be swayed by the fact that they have given me access to information about their mission (on condition that I not report it beforehand), but we'll see. As senior officers, they will be asked the hard questions if things go wrong, and I think they know that.

Here's what we can say about the brigade's status as the war proceeded today: Their bags are packed. Their weapons are in good order. The tension is rising, but they are still able to joke like the 19- and 20-year-olds they are.

It's been widely reported that the brigade is expected to be inserted - either by parachute or by airlift - into northern Iraq.

"I've never been a war junkie, but I think this is the right thing to do," said Spc. Chris Brown, 22, of North Carolina. "I'm nervous, but then I think about the guys who jumped into Normandy. They jumped into a lot worse places than we would jump into."

One more note about the company I've been hanging around, Able Company, 2d Batallion, 503d Airborne Infantry. Its commander, Eric Baus, is a local guy. He and his wife, the former Jennifer Blazko, are natives of Collingswood, N.J. His dad grew up in Northeast Philly.
Eric Baus
     Eric Baus
My first clue about this came when I was standing outside the barracks the other day, and heard a voice from behind asking me: "What's the greatest moment in Eagles history?

It was Baus. I told him I wasn't too sure, since I grew up a Patriots fan.

"You're kidding!" he shook his head at the notion of an Inquirer reporter who hadn't heard of what Eagles fans call "The Body Bag Game," when the Eagles injured several Redskins starters during a 1990 playoff at the Vet in a 28-14 victory.

Baus has two children, 5 and 3. Jennifer is pregnant with a third, and will go home to New Jersey to have it.

Baus graduated ROTC from the University of Scranton after having served as an enlisted soldier in the Pennsylvania National Guard. "I never expected to make the Army a full-time job," he said.

At 30, he's in charge of more then 100 well-armed men. A former instructor at the elite Army Ranger school, he has performed more than 90 parachute jumps, but never in combat.

"I'm not worried," he said. "These guys are good." Then he corrected himself. "They’re great."