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101st readies for Mideast duty

The 101st Airborne was deployed in Afghanistan in 2002.
The 101st Airborne was deployed in Afghanistan in 2002.

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FORT CAMPBELL, Kentucky (CNN) -- The 101st Airborne Division, one of the U.S. Army's key fighting forces, was alerted Thursday to expect deployment orders soon as part of the buildup for a possible war against Iraq, military officials said.

"We can confirm that the deployment orders have been signed for the 101st," said Maj. Carl Purvis, a public affairs spokesman for the division's home base.

Military officials in Washington said later the orders have not actually been signed, but soon will be.

According to reports, officials have indicated the entire force of 20,000 troops will be deployed.

Purvis said the unit will be sent to the Central Command Region, which includes Iraq, the entire Persian Gulf and an area stretching from eastern India to the Horn of Africa. He would not be more specific than that.

A press release from Fort Campbell said the division, known as the "Screaming Eagles, was being deployed "to support possible future operations in the global war on terrorism, the standard line used for all Gulf deployments in the buildup to a possible attack against Iraq.

There now are 110,000 U.S. troops deployed in the Central Command region -- 70,000 in the Gulf alone.

"As the world's premiere air assault division, the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) and its 270 helicopters will provide Central Command substantial operational flexibility and combat power, as well as the ability to conduct long-range helicopter attacks and air assault operations should those capabilities be required to successfully prosecute the global war on terrorism," " Fort Campbell's press release said.

At Fort Campbell, soldiers said they were ready for deployment.

"President Bush thinks it's a good cause. He's the boss," said Sgt. Aaron Linnius.

Reservist Shannon Thornbury said they have known they would likely deploy for several months, giving him time to prepare his family for it.

"They know what we're doing. They know it's for a good cause," he said.

The 101st Airborne played a key role in the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan, as well as past wars including Vietnam and World War II, where 14,000 parachuted behind enemy lines at Normandy on D-Day -- June 6, 1944.

According to retired Gen. David Grange, a CNN military analyst, the 101st would be a key fighting force if the United States launched an attack on Iraq.

"The 101st Airborne Air Assault Division brigade that was used in Afghanistan was used pretty much for counterinsurgency type operations," Grange said. "In other words, they did raids, they did ambushes, they did patrolling, they did a couple of combat air assaults. ..."

"So it's a very versatile, very flexible, fast-moving unit, and it's a unit of choice if we go to war," he said.

-- CNN Pentagon Producer Mike Mount contributed to this report.

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