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Troops Safe In Iraq After Long 'March'
By Steve Liewer
Stars and Stripes
European Edition

March 10, 2004

CAMP PALIWODA, Iraq - Tired, sore, but safe, the soldiers of Task Force 1-77 unloaded their gear Saturday night at their crude, dusty new home in central Iraq.

The arrival followed a 450-mile, 34-hour convoy ride from Camp New York, Kuwait. Dozens of similar convoys have been carrying other 1st Infantry Division units from holding camps in Kuwait to permanent posts in north central Iraq, from Tikrit to Baqoubah.

The convoy - or "approach march," in Army terminology - lacked the drama and misery of the wartime rides many units endured a year ago. Several trucks broke down and the unit was stopped once near Baghdad while an improvised explosive device beside the road was defused. But the unit was never under hostile fire.

"I've never been through something like that," said Master Sgt. Angel Negron, 38, of Utuado, Puerto Rico, "but it wasn't that bad. Just a lot of hurry up and wait."

More than 100 troops from Company B and the headquarters company climbed aboard 29 Humvees and trucks early Friday at Camp New York, having spent the previous two days packing and loading. The rest of the task force left within a day in separate convoys.

After 3 weeks of training and tedium in Kuwait, they were more than eager to head north in spite of the danger.

"I'm excited to get out of here and do my job," said Spc. David Bragg, 29, of Inman, S.C., a scout team member who manned a .50-caliber machine gun atop the unit's lead vehicle.

If anyone feared the threat posed by improvised bombs or guerrilla attacks, they weren't saying so as they nonchalantly smoked and drank Cokes just before departing.

"There's always going to be concerns," said 1st Lt. Alex Prezioso, 26, who is attached to Task Force 1-77 with his New York National Guard unit, the 2nd Battalion, 108th Infantry Regiment. "You just need to stay focused and do your job."

"We're going to get where we're going and knock out anything that gets in our way," boasted Pfc. Thomas Jones, 23, of Memphis, Tenn.

The unit rolled out of camp at 7:50 a.m., five minutes behind schedule. Within 10 minutes, it had to pause for a convoy from the 299th Forward Support Battalion based in Schweinfurt, Germany. The 299th FSB, slower moving because it was made up mostly of heavy trucks, would hinder the Task Force 1-77 caravan several times over the next two days.

It took barely 2 hours over paved roads to reach Combat Support Center Navistar, just south of the Iraq border on Highway 80. Navistar is one of several fueling yards for military vehicles along the way.

At 12:50 p.m., fully gassed up, the convoy lined up to cross the border.

Three scout team soldiers - Pfc. Brian Heiss, 21, of Harrisburg, Pa.; Spc. Brian Nethery, 20, of Englewood, Fla.; and Sgt. Aaron Haynes, 23, of Columbus, Ohio - jumped out early and unfurled the U.S. and battalion flags atop the 10-foot sand berm that separates Iraq from Kuwait. They stood at attention and held the colors until the whole convoy had passed.

"Welcome to Iraq, gentleman," said Sgt. Tony Gutierrez, 30, of Kerman, Calif., who served in Iraq last year with the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment and is now back with the 1st ID.

After speeding up Iraq's Baghdad-to-Basra highway all afternoon, the convoy reached its second refueling stop just before sunset. It pulled out about 7 p.m., slowly at first because a 299th FSB truck had stalled in front of them and the unit stopped to tow it.

The soldiers spent a bumpy evening driving 89 miles across unpaved roads. Around midnight, they pulled into Scania, another fueling station about 60 miles south of Baghdad. After refueling the vehicles, the soldiers pulled out their sleeping bags at about 2 a.m. and spread them anywhere to sleep on the roofs of Humvees, on trailers, even in the dirt.

Five hours later, they got up, ate and some shaved. It sobered them to know they would be driving through more dangerous areas, through Baghdad and beyond.

Standing beside his Humvee, 1st Sgt. Mark Oldroyd, 38, of Turtle Lake, Wis., led a group of soldiers in prayer.

"We ask that you take care of each and every soldier in this task force," he said. "If we must go into harm's way, let us be strong and courageous. Please bring us home to our families at the end of this tour."

They managed to stay out of harm's way thanks to someone in a convoy just ahead who spotted a roadside bomb. Task Force 1-77 halted on a highway near Baghdad International Airport at 10:15 a.m. for about 90 minutes while an Army explosives team detonated it.

Around noon, the convoy finally saw Baghdad. The vehicles skirted the downtown, though, and braved heavy traffic in the city's western suburbs. Gunners kept watch, fingers on triggers. No one threatened them.

Task Force 1-77 made its last fuel stop that afternoon at the ruined former Iraqi air force base in Taji. There they waited 3 hours for other convoys to arrive, joining up and splitting into two: one bound for Anaconda, the giant Army-Air Force logistics support area at the former Balad air base; the other for Paliwoda, a small, gritty forward operating base which Task Force 1-77 and two of its companies will call home until next February.

After three weeks of training in worst-case scenarios, they were relieved, and a little surprised, to arrive without incident.

"I was expecting some action," said Spc. Daniel Flounoy, 27, of Pavo, Ga. "We didn't get it. I guess that's good."

"I was a little more nervous than I thought I would be," said Sgt. Anthony Marchi, 28, of Stockholm, Sweden. "It's nice to finally be here, though."

- Steve Liewer is embedded in Iraq with Task Force 1-77.

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This article is provided courtesy of Stars & Stripes, which got its start as a newspaper for Union troops during the Civil War, and has been published continuously since 1942 in Europe and 1945 in the Pacific. Stripes reporters have been in the field with American soldiers, sailors and airmen in World War II, Korea, the Cold War, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Bosnia and Kosovo, and are now on assignment in the Middle East.

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Copyright 2004 Stars and Stripes. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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