Salute to Our Soldiers

The Front Line: A Wisconsin Soldier Reports

A little more than one year ago we departed Ft Bragg for Operation Iraqi Freedom. Being away from family and loved ones gave me time to reflect on the genesis of our unit, the 5th Squadron 73rd Recon. I took command of the 3rd Battalion 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment 82nd Airborne Division, comprised of 700 paratroopers, in June of 05. We had just been selected to become the first Airborne Reconnaissance Squadron as part of the Army's overall transformation to a more mobile lethal force. MG Caldwell, the Division Commander, wanted to ensure the success of this keystone formation and he directed the successful resourcing of the organization, its training, equipping, and especially, its personnel. He provided me the latitude to identify and select our leaders, officers and NCOs, plus many of the soldiers who would be part of this elite organization. By early July, we had established our organization to focus on development and refinement of the technical and tactical expertise required to operate in Iraq, while simultaneously forming the social foundation that would carry us through some of our most trying times during combat. We have now been together for 2 years, having built a strong, cohesive, and professional unit in which discipline is the hallmark. We have trained together, deployed together, and continue to fight together.

We received accolades from peers and superiors on the unit's military prowess. Our approach is somewhat unique-living in the desert or within the villages, often operating in austere environments that are only overcome through constant interaction. We fight for intel using infiltration and long duration stealth observation, local populace sources, and technology to develop a clear picture of our enemy's activities. From this we conduct a series of shaping operations to confirm our assumptions and set the conditions for the main effort. A detailed plan is created, briefed, and rehearsed to ensure success. Operations begin by dominating the battle space with forces isolating the objective area so as to deny the enemy the ability to retreat, followed by aggressive clearance operations. We capitalize on this success with patrol base operations, which facilitates population engagements, builds trust, and contributes to the long term security of the area.

The strength of any organization is its people. I am blessed by the quality of paratroopers I serve with. My field grade officers are brilliant, with unmatched work ethics and unfailing commitment to both mission and men. The troop commanders (Captains) are shouldering burdens at 25 years of age that I never experienced at that point in my career; the dynamics of command have increased exponentially. They work with a grace and calm, under fire, that is inspiring. In the morning they are clearing houses in direct fire fights, controlling attack helicopters, ensuring our wounded are medevaced, and by the afternoon they could be sitting with a group of local sheiks drinking tea discussing future civil works for their respective villages. Incredible. The paratroopers themselves are nothing short of heroic. The physically demanding nature of our business, the roller coaster of human emotions generated by the tempo of our job, and the fact that day after day they continue on while taking pride in themselves and the unit, ensures mission success.

Unfortunately we have not been without losses. We lost 22 heroes in the past year of fighting and presented over 100 purple hearts to our wounded. In desperation, the insurgents attacked us with suicide bombers and by driving bomb laden vehicles into our positions. We have had direct fire fights in houses, trenches, palm groves, and it is a continuous fight to destroy those emplacing IEDs along the transportation routes. CPT Schiller, who was honored in the June issue of The Bugle, was an inspirational leader for the men of his unit. He died in a fire fight while leading paratroopers during a clearance operation. Each loss is irreparable, both for us, and, especially, for the families of the men that we lost. I fully realize the depth of sorrow this entails. As a hand selected smaller unit, we know each other as brothers, making every loss all the more grave and all the more personal. We conduct a memorial service for them, and each soldier in the unit provides a final salute to their fallen comrades.

These paratroopers take great pride in their accomplishments as warriors. We are aggressive, and, with the austere conditions we now live in, have renamed the unit TF 300 in reference to the battle of Thermopylae (Stephen Pressfield's Gates of Fire is required reading for all the officers in the unit). TF 300 epitomizes the Spartan quality of enduring physical hardship, fighting spirit, commitment to our brothers in arms, and never failing in any mission.

By Lt. Col. Andrew Poppas