I volunteered to be an air liaison officer, an ALO or forward air controller, with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) for a number of reasons—high among them the division’s legendary status. With a tradition going back to the Civil War, this Army unit had been in the D-day landing, the airborne assault toward Arnhem, and had ended the Second World War in possession of Berchtesgaden. The 101st had fought well in Vietnam, too, but it was my boyhood memories fueled by movies like The Longest Day , A Bridge Too Far , and Battleground that drew me to it. Battleground probably represented the height of the division’s fame. This was about the outfit that, cut off at Bastogne in the winter of 1944, had stood and held on until relieved, thus helping derail the last German offensive in the West. In fact, all the missions of the 101st seemed to have the same theme: hold until relieved.
When I reported to Fort Campbell in August of 1989 the division had long since turned in its parachutes for helicopters, keeping the Airborne designation but not the maroon berets of the parachute units. One historical note did still ring true: I was assigned as the brigade ALO for the 1st Brigade, which was built around the 327th Infantry Regiment, a unit that had figured prominently in the fighting at Bastogne.
Training was interesting if uneventful until August of 1990, when our crosstown rivals, the 82d Airborne, started deploying to Saudi Arabia. By February we had weathered the start of the air war in the Gulf as well as a seven-hundred-mile shift to the west from our initial defensive positions. Now we were in pre-assault positions.
I remember vividly attending the brigade’s final briefing. The 1st would lead the division across the border in the first hours of the ground war with a massive assault of more than a hundred helicopters, eighty miles into Iraq. There we were to hold a position that, on the map, looked to me like a very lonely circle in the middle of a lot of sand. We were to hold until relieved.
I hoped General Schwartzkopf knew what he was doing, because it looked like he was throwing us a lot farther and faster than I would have.
After examining the position, I turned to our brigade S-3, a fellow major and a laconic infantryman from Arkansas who had been in the Grenada invasion as a captain. I talked some about the history of the 101st in general and our infantry regiment in particular, noting how often over the years the outfit ended up in positions that had been drawn as circles in bad-guy country and been told to hold until relieved. He thought about that for a while. Then he said, “Well, what you say is true, but we ain’t messed up yet.”
With that we went into preparations for what turned out to be the largest and most successful helicopter assault in history. We linked up with our ground-support columns the next day. Not long after, I was in a ground convoy moving to link up with our helicopters for another assault, this time across the Euphrates, when the column was stopped and we were told the war was over. The 101st would not have to hold until relieved until another war came along.