Saturday, March 26, 2011

8 Years Ago Today the 173rd Airborne Brigade Made the First Combat Jump Into Iraq

The jump into Iraq was forty years to the date of when the Brigade was first stood up. 

The 173D Airborne Brigade was activated on the island of Okinawa on March 26, 1963.  The Brigade was the first Army Unit sent (jumped) to the Republic of South Vietnam in May, 1965. The major portion of the brigade landed at Bien Hoa Airfield and found an area that had been battered frequently by enemy raids and shelling attacks

Forty years later, on 26 March 2003 (not 23 March, as sometimes reported), the 173rd Airborne Brigade conducted a jump into Northern Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. This action was advertised as "the largest airborne assault since D-Day," but that was manifestly untrue. Operation Market Garden, which followed D-Day, was larger than the Normandy assault. It was also called the "...largest mass combat jump since WWII," but operations in Korea were larger than the 2003 airdrop. Other accounts claimed that it was "... the largest combat airborne operation since the Vietnam War...." but the airdrop in Panama in 1989 was several times larger. It does appear that it was the C-17's first-ever combat insertion of paratroopers.

Soldiers landed in the Bashur Drop zone effectively opening a northern front in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The Kurdish controlled area was expected to be friendly and little resistance was anticipated. The 173rd's jump into Northern Iraq was the first wave of conventional American forces into the area. With all of the US and coalition presence, the support team, SOF team, and Peshmerga, on the ground, the jump was considered "permissive," meaning the soldiers did not expect to be shot at as they descended. Parachute insertion made sense because it saved time given the relatively small ramp capacity on the airfield.

The 173rd augmented and provided a visible and credible conventional capability to the already-robust SOF presence in the Kurdish Autonomous Zone, the area on the Kurdish side of the Green Line. However, the weather was bad when the planes took off for the jump and the weather continued to be bad hours out from the jump as the C-17s approached the jump site. The team knew that calling the mission off was not an option. Nearly 1,000 soldiers of the 173rd Airborne Brigade loaded up onto C-17 jets lining the Aviano Air Base runway. The weather called for a pitch-black night, with no moon or stars and there was expected to be fresh mud on the drop zone from the heavy storms in the prior weeks. In the approach the C-17's had to go into an intense, steep dive from 30,000 feet to 600 feet because of being in hostile airspace and because the drop zone was nestled in a valley.

While the jump was good, the aircraft "jumped long" and the brigade was strung out all over the airfield with some airplanes releasing 2,000-3,000 yards early, while others released that late. As the sun rose, it revealed "LGOPPs" or "little groups of pissed-off paratroopers," strung out all over a now-10,000-yard-long drop zone. LGOPPs form when paratroopers link up with whomever is closest, regardless of unit affiliation, and move as a group to the assembly points.

Once on the ground, the troopers started trudging through the mud trying to locate their units and assembly areas. It took all night to move approximately 8 kilometers. Elements were scattered everywhere. They had jumped into plowed farm country and there was deep mud everywhere. The mud was so bad troopers were pulling each other in and out of it. Some lost a boot in it and ended up walking half of the way barefoot. The Kurdish soldiers, however, proved themselves to be friendly allies. The Peshmerga brought firewood, rice in an old oil pan, bread and cheese, and some mystery meat.

The C-17s gave Washington the power to open and sustain a northern front when Turkey would not permit US ground forces to use Turkish soil to invade Iraq. Fifteen C-17s airdropped 954 troops and equipment from the 173rd Airborne Brigade near Bashur on 26 March 2003. Only 32 jumpers did not make it out of the aircraft. They were followed by an airland insertion of forces.

Eventually, over 2,000 troops and equipment, including 5 M1A1 tanks, 5 Bradley fighting vehicles, 15 armored personnel carriers and 41 HMMWVs were airlifted to the field. The unit remained in Iraq until February 2004. Nine Soldiers and one Airman gave their lives as they fought here to make the mission a success

I am proud to know so many of these men from both wars/jumps and am thankful for all of them!

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