Local News

Fort Bragg Soldiers Mark Time Training As They Await War Duty

Posted March 24, 2003 3:12 a.m. EST

— Under sunny Southern skies half a world away from the battlefields of Iraq, soldiers concentrated on their training Monday - preparing themselves physically for a war they say they are already mentally ready to fight.

A crowd of paratroopers worked through the final stages of training for jumpmaster certification on one part of this sprawling Army post, while military police on another field hardened themselves with exposure to noxious gas.

The war can be fought at home as well as abroad, said Sgt. 1st Class Dale Warner, 39, a 20-year Army veteran who was teaching the jumpmaster candidates.

"We train to be there but we also have a mission that says this still has to go on," he said, as the trainees stood in a circle on the sawdust-covered floor of an open-sided shelter, examining each other's gear.

Warner and Sgt. 1st Class David Hankins, 36, were teaching 94 soldiers who each hoped to become a certified jumpmaster - the paratrooper in charge of a group of parachutists from the time they enter an aircraft until they exit.

The course has a 60 percent graduation rate, Warner said.

Knowing they could join the battle, many paratroopers say the images inspire them to train even harder.

"My heart goes out to my fellow soldiers. It could be me. It might be me. We are with them in heart," Sfc. Tim Fountain said.

In Monday's exercise, one soldier had a specified amount of time to check the parachute rig worn by another.

The full parachute equipment - not including weapons and personal effects - weighs 44 pounds. The candidates were training with lighter, partial gear rigged with deficiencies that the "inspectors" were required to find, such as an exposed canopy on a reserve chute or something as simple as a weapon attached upside-down.

Hankins, from Raeford, has spent two months in Afghanistan since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and was in Saudi Arabia for seven months during the Persian Gulf war. His wife, Quintina, herself an Army sergeant, just returned from a year's duty in Korea.

Hankins said he wasn't concerned that he hasn't, as yet, been called to action in this war against Iraq.

"Everyone has their part and purpose in a war campaign. ... Your part will come whether at the start or the end," he said. "All you can do is just be ready."

Jumpmaster candidate Maj. Luke Leonard was more anxious to get to the Middle East. His unit, the 27th Engineering Battalion, already has some members in Afghanistan and Kuwait.

In the meantime, when he's at home, the television is always tuned to the news and the phone constantly rings with calls from friends and family who want to know when he's shipping out.

Leonard said he was "absolutely" ready to go to Iraq.

"Everybody wishes they were there. Most of us have buddies over there," he said.

Some instructors said it is vital that soldiers stay grounded during times of war. Staff Sgt. Duane Bowen said it helps to talk with his father, who was wounded in Vietnam.

"With him being in Vietnam, they went through a lot more than we will go through," Bowen said.

Fellow trainee Capt. Landon Raby, 29, noted that it can be hard to leave home.

"We like being with our families," he said. "But you still have that itch to do what you trained to do."

Across the base, members of the 65th Military Police Company went through chemical training, exposing themselves to CS gas - similar to pepper spray - inside a small building.

The training "gives you confidence in your equipment," said Sgt. Donald Tabb of New York City. But it does little to quell the anxiousness of troops waiting for the call to join their comrades overseas.

"You just want to be there, right by their side, to help them," Tabb said.