101st Commander Calls Adaptability Key to Success in Iraq
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
FORT CAMPBELL, Ky., Mar. 17, 2004 One year ago today, the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) was at Camp New Jersey, the division's holding area in Kuwait, awaiting orders to move north and cross into Iraq at the onset of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus stops to pick up a young Iraqi boy when his convoy stopped in Karbala, Iraq, April 6. Photo by Sgt. Jason L. Austin, USA
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Today, with all members of the division's "Screaming Eagles" back here at their home post, division commander Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus credited his soldiers' adaptability to ever-changing situations for ensuring the division's success in Iraq.
"The one overriding lesson out of all of this is that our flexible, adaptable soldiers are the key to everything our division and our Army did in Iraq," Petraeus said.
Throughout their deployment, Petraeus said, his soldiers continually adjusted to the situations that confronted them. "The truth is, no one approach or tactic fits everywhere in Iraq," he said. "Every place is unique, and the situations are all different. And in fact, there is no one unique tactic or approach that even works day in and day out in the same location."
Petraeus said that even in Mosul the division's Iraqi base from April until last month his soldiers constantly had to "adapt to the situation, to the enemy, to the resources that we had available."
But Petraeus said that adaptability demonstrated itself even before the division had left its home post. He credited his troops with breaking standard deployment conventions to get 5,000 vehicles, 1,500 shipping containers, 17,000 soldiers and 264 helicopters from Fort Campbell to Kuwait all within less than six weeks of receiving a formal deployment order. "They made a Herculean effort," he said, even physically joining in the ship loading at Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to speed up the process.
Despite intensive training to prepare the division's leaders for a rapid deployment and for the vast railhead, port and airfield improvements since Operation Desert Storm, Petraeus acknowledged the division felt "under the gun" as it prepared to get its equipment in place and possibly face combat "within a very, very short timeline."
With the division in theater and the countdown to war continuing, the pressure intensified, he said. "We had challenges in that our soldiers were still unloading equipment off ships as elements of the division were getting ready to go through the berm (into Iraq)," Petraeus said.
Once the war started, he said, his troops used innovative tactics to confront a variety of different enemies as they moved north Republic Guard, Saddam Fedayeen paramilitary group fighters and Baath militia. Much of the fighting took place in large, urban areas including Najaf, a city of 600,000 people.
"Although we train for this at the Joint Readiness Training Center and home station, I'll tell you that nothing prepares you to clear a city of 600,000 as your first combat objective," Petraeus said.
He credits his young leaders and soldiers "at the point of decision" who "changed the tactics, techniques and procedures to deal with the threat that we found." Kiowa attack helicopter pilots, for example, flew in front of the U.S. forces, exhibiting what the general called "courage and initiative."
Similarly, Petraeus said the division's Apache pilots adapted to conduct daylight reconnaissance operations, supported by Air Force close-air support, the Army tactical missile system and Air Force jammers, intelligence-gathering systems and command and control systems. The combination, he said, "proved very, very effective in finding and then destroying heavy enemy elements that were on the flank of the 5th Corps advance."
As the division advanced to Baghdad, then Mosul, Petraeus said the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) troops adopted a new role as they began helping the Iraqis rebuild their country. He admits the soldiers' dual roles as warfighters and peacekeepers sometimes appeared to be at odds.
"Oftentimes we felt as if our soldiers had a rifle in one hand and a wrench in the other," Petraeus said. "We were fighting, but we were also rebuilding." He said the young soldiers who regularly patrolled Mosul and interacted with the Iraqi people successfully carried out these dual and seemingly conflicting roles.
"It's an enormous tribute to our young soldiers the sergeants, lieutenants and captains who were out there every day, interacting with people all day, every day, and their ability to adjust to the situation as they find it," he said.
Now returned with his division to Fort Campbell, Petraeus said the lessons of Operation Iraqi Freedom validate what his former boss, retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Henry "Hugh" Shelton, used to say: "It's people, not equipment. It's quality. Not quantity."
Quantity isn't a bad thing, Petraeus said. "What we would like to have is a huge quantity of very high-quality people with the best equipment money can buy," he said. "But at the end of the day, what is decisive is the people using the equipment high-quality people."
"And that," he said, "is what we were blessed to have (in Iraq)."
Petraeus said he agrees wholeheartedly with Tom Brokaw, author of "The Greatest Generation," a book about World War II veterans, who called the men and women fighting the war on terror "the next greatest generation."
"I've seen our young soldiers endure tremendous hardship, overcome tremendous challenges, fight a tenacious, determined and even suicidal enemy, and demonstrate incredible innovativeness and compassion," he said. "It's just extraordinary."
Now that they're returned to their home station, as their equipment continues to arrive and before they get back into their full training cycles, Petraeus said he has one more adaptation to ask of his soldiers.
"What we need do right now is to make sure our soldiers get time with their families, and enjoy some of the blessings that this country enjoys that they have been fighting to protect for the past couple of years," he said.