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'Screaming Eagles' of 101st have valiant history

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 U.S. Army's only air assault division, the 101st Airborne Division, is headed to the Persian Gulf region soon as part of the buildup for a possible war against Iraq, military officials said Thursday.

"I'm eager to go. 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 and that he has had time to prepare his family for it.

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

The "Screaming Eagles" have been to the gulf before.

In January 1991, the 101st participated in the deepest air assault into enemy territory in world history as part of the coalition campaign against Iraq.

During the 100-hour Gulf War, no division soldiers were killed and they took thousands of enemy troops prisoner.

It was yet another "Rendezvous with destiny" that the division's first commander, Maj. Gen. William C. Lee, promised his new recruits when the 101st was created in 1942.

The first time that promise was kept was in World War II when 14,000 members of the division parachuted into Normandy on the eve of D-Day -- June 6, 1944.

The division fought on to Bastogne where it was surrounded. When the German forces demanded the U.S. division's surrender, Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe responded, "Nuts!" and his troops fought on until the siege was lifted.

Decades later, the division participated in as many as 15 campaigns in Vietnam.

The troops, based in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, have also supported humanitarian relief efforts in Rwanda and Somalia, and later supplied peacekeepers to Haiti and Bosnia.

When the U.S. war on terror began after September 11, elements from the 101st went into Afghanistan for Operation Anaconda to drive the extremist Taliban regime from power and the Islamic terrorist al Qaeda organization out of the country.

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

"The 101st Airborne Air Assault Division brigade that was used in Afghanistan was used pretty much for counterinsurgency type operations: in other words, they did raids, they did ambushes, they did patrolling, they did a couple of combat air assaults, for instance, in operation Anaconda where they knew there was a big force of al Qaeda, Taliban forces dug in," Grange said.

"It's a very flexible organization. They can move long distances. They have a lot of firepower. They can put troops down on top of mountains, ridge lines, behind the enemy forces. They have the gunships that provide firepower. They can sling-load in artillery pieces for indirect fire.

"So it's a very versatile, very flexible, fast-moving unit, and it's a unit of choice if we go to war. In Iraq it'll be key, tied into the heavy armored formations, to secure bridge sites, airfields, to assist in the combined arms capability for the other units that fight in Iraq."

In its latest expected deployment, Pentagon officials have indicated the entire force of 20,000 troops, along with 270 helicopters will head to the U.S. Central Command Region, which includes Iraq, the Persian Gulf as a whole and an area stretching from eastern Pakistan to the Horn of Africa.

The 101st will provide "substantial operational flexibility and combat power," a press release said, "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."

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