FORT BRAGG, N.C. -- The assault began late on a moonless night with the muted drone of heavy, low-flying aircraft and the silent blossoming of a thousand parachutes.
Minutes later, several tons of artillery -- four 105mm and 155mm howitzers, and an ammo truck -- thudded to the ground. Gun trucks mounted with .50-cal. machine guns and grenade launchers soon followed, and then soon afterward the paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team themselves landed.
Combat-loaded with 100 pounds of gear, they hit the ground from 800 feet in less than 20 seconds, bagged their chutes and sprinted away in the darkness. Their mission: seize and secure an airstrip, eliminate two nearby enemy positions, evacuate several dozen American civilians and repair the runway to enable heavy-lift cargo planes to land with water, ammo, fuel and troop reinforcements. Their deadline: four hours.
The location: Iraq.
But this was an exercise in North Carolina. The last American troops are being withdrawn from Iraq, with all troops scheduled to be out of the country by Dec. 31. But as that deadline looms, Iraq increasingly is torn by violence: Sunni and Shiite militias battle each other and Iraqi security forces with rocket attacks, car bombs and suicide bombers, killing and wounding hundreds each month.
Iraq's flawed and fragile democracy is under siege, and its government is hoping that the army and police can keep the country stable. There is certainly little if any appetite in Washington or among the American public for U.S. military reengagement in Iraq.
But it's not difficult to conjure a plausible reason for a short but powerful American military intervention: Militiamen of extremist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr might seize the U.S. embassy; an al Qaeda-backed coup might take down the government in Baghdad. If Iraq's government asks a few hundred U.S. trainers to stay on, they might be taken hostage.
Whatever the reason, if the White House decided fast action were needed, it would likely fall to the 82nd Airborne's 1st Brigade. Later this year the brigade will step into a 12-month rotation as part of the U.S. Global Response Force. As the nation's quick crisis-response reserve, the brigade will be ready on constant alert -- the first unit to go in an emergency.
Problem is, commanders say, their paratroopers and the rest of the Army haven't been practicing this kind of kick-in-the-door mission. Nor have they been jumping. They've been walking foot patrols, hunting insurgents and drinking tea with elders in Iraq and Afghanistan. That kind of war requires commanders to allow their sergeants and lieutenants maximum freedom to maneuver their 30- or 40-man platoons, operating miles and hours away from the command post.
Parachuting into Iraq is different. Organizing a thousand paratroopers and their gear to fall out of the night sky and synchronizing their actions on the ground takes intricate plans, timetables and deadlines, exhaustive rehearsals and tight control. And coordination. Aboard each plane a senior officer passes a clipboard with intel updates to each paratrooper: sporadic small arms fire reported southeast of the drop zone; Predator drones see no other enemy activity; and the aircraft designated "chalk 12" has turned back, which means your platoon sergeant isn't going to jump and Sgt. Sixpack is now in charge.
But even with good preparation, a lot can go wrong. The previous night, Staff Sgt. Jamal Clay, 25, had died during a routine jump at Fort Bragg when his chute apparently failed to open. "I worry about the number of people who're going to be in the air all at once," said Capt. Bryan Morgan, 30, of Indianola, Wash., referring to the risks of midair collisions and tangled chutes.
"It's close quarters and tight spaces," Col. Mark Stock, who commands 1st Brigade, told The Huffington Post. "It's hard stuff, and we work at it."
The skill these paratroopers are working at isn't making everything go perfectly according to the plan. The skill is making things go okay when everything goes bad and the plan has to be abandoned.
This time, everything went bad.
Shortly before take-off, flight crews discovered the doors on two C-130s were broken, meaning paratroopers couldn't jump from them. This caused a ripple through the intricate plan that called for Air Force C-130s and C-17 aircraft to be squeezed together over the drop zone to get the jumpers and weapons on the ground quickly before the enemy caught on. That required flying three abreast over the drop zone, the entire armada crammed into an 11-minute period, with each plane lumbering along eight seconds behind the one in front.
Once airborne, another C-130 had engine trouble and turned back with a full load of paratroopers. They landed nearby, commandeered a bus and drove to the drop zone.
In all, due to plane malfunctions and other snafus, 933 of the brigade's 1,700 paratroopers actually jumped, and the anticipated 50 casualties -- troopers with twisted ankles, mild concussions and other small injuries -- didn't materialize. Staff Sgt. Crystal Wint, 35, assigned to a security detail, came down with close to 100 pounds of gear (she is 5 foot 3 inches and weighs 115 pounds). "A soft landing," she said, adding with a grin: "It's always a good jump when you get up and walk away."
That was just before the storm struck, a maelstrom of blasting wind, slashing rain and brilliant flashes of forked lightning that reduced the ground to muck and visibility to near zero. Gun trucks wallowed through the mud. Radio communications went to static. Lightning was so severe that one platoon struggled to its assigned position, then set out guards and stacked weapons in a pile some distance away so they wouldn't be electrocuted if lightning struck nearby. They huddled in a depression that slowly filled with water, and the storm went on for hours.
"We fell back on old soldier skills, regrouped and changed the plan on the go," said Sgt. Brandon Mendes, 27, from St. Louis. When a few new soldiers hesitated, the sergeants urged them on, Mendes yelled, "C'mon, dammit -- train like you'd fight!"
When a soggy dawn broke, the brigade was bedraggled but intact. The airstrip was secured from the enemy, although it would be hours before it dried out enough for C-130s to land. An enemy stronghold east of the airstrip was to have been taken out by Alpha Company of the 1st Battalion, 504th. At the height of the storm, Alpha's guntrucks had crept up and targeted the enemy in its thermal sights -- and sat waiting. The enemy, without thermal sights, was blind. At dawn they would either surrender or be annihilated. Either way, the brigade commander's intent -- that the enemy be prevented from firing on the airstrip -- was achieved.
"We plan in a perfect world and set conditions to adjust," said Maj. Phil Sounia, brigade executive officer. "We got a lot of forces on the ground, the enemy can't move, we've secured a foothold, and we're moving into the next phase," he said. For Sounia, the key is hard physical training, attention to detail, setting high expectations -- and no B.S.
"We move," he said, "at the speed of truth."
More hard training lies ahead this summer and fall for 1st Brigade's paratroopers: punishing physical training, repeated jumps and mission planning, rehearsals and operations that emphasize speed and flexibility. They will do so with one eye on the deteriorating situation in Iraq.