By Ken Allard
San Antonio Express-News
With the Final Four here this weekend and Spurs playoff hopes riding
high, you're likely to hear a lot of nonsense being talked about
"heroes." Let an unheralded college forward, a Tony or a Manu hit a
30-foot jumper at the buzzer and "heroics" will be the preferred term,
from headlines to conversations around the office coffee pot.
Sorry to differ, but athletic prowess makes great players, not heroes.
So may I tell you about some folks who truly deserve that term? And why
the words "unsung" and "hero" go together more often than not?
The Third Brigade of the Army's legendary 82nd Airborne Division
returned home just before the year-end holidays, 3,700 of the Army's
best soldiers who spent 15 months in Iraq as the shock troops of the
surge. Their homecoming was overlooked by the chattering classes on the
Sunday talk shows, ignored by the presidential candidates and unseen by
most of their fellow citizens, long accustomed to the sacrifices of
Other People's Kids.
You are thus unlikely to be familiar with the brigade's recent history,
which included an emergency deployment to New Orleans right after
Hurricane Katrina. (I linked up with them there as an "embed" on one of
my final assignments for NBC News.)
Certain memories endure: the howl of Katrina's 100 mile-an-hour winds;
the stench that no picture of New Orleans' flooded precincts could
possibly convey; and the instant calm that descended on the city at the
first sight of the red-bereted paratroopers. There had been lots of
exaggeration about snipers and anarchy. Because most of the young
troopers were already veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq, the wiser
criminals soon found more convenient business elsewhere . leaving only
that glowering malevolence known as the New Orleans police. When they
weren't re-establishing order, clearing the streets and providing
medical assistance, the 82nd pulled together information ."situational
awareness" . in tactical briefings that cryptically summarized the most
critical rescue functions: communications, logistics, transportation,
medical support, even public affairs. Sharing that information allowed
hard-pressed government and civilian agencies to coordinate efforts that
would otherwise have run afoul of each other.
Katrina's waters were still receding when the 3rd Brigade was recalled
to prepare for its upcoming mission to Iraq. After months of intense
training, they arrived there in July 2006, assigned to the area north of
Baghdad that had been home to Saddam and his followers. It was classic
light infantry combat, punctuated by the latest generation of roadside
American commanders once believed that the best way to get intelligence
was to take the hill first and count the enemy dead afterwards. But the
information weapon was even more critical in Iraq than it had been in
New Orleans. Counter-insurgency is information warfare combined with the
deadliest of the martial arts. The brigade now drew upon an astonishing
array of geo-spatial intelligence as well as drones and remotely piloted
vehicles not much bigger than model airplanes. Information and analysis
were rapidly driven downwards, giving a critical edge to the paratrooper
engaged in muzzle-to-muzzle combat.
Halfway through its tour, the brigade became the blocking force for the
surge, which displaced al-Qaida from its accustomed safe havens. When
you force the enemy to move, you also force him to make mistakes. In
Samarra, the 505th Infantry discovered an insurgent headquarters with a
cache of 10 desktop computers . and the ID cards of two captured U.S.
soldiers. That treasure trove yielded 11 terabytes of information, a
virtual blueprint of the enemy's order of battle.
The brigade's commander, Col. Bryan Owens, points out that success
always has a price . and that 48 of his paratroopers gave their lives in
battle after their more celebrated deployment to New Orleans.
So when you hear about how badly our Army is over-stretched and
under-appreciated, you can properly question our nation's priorities .
and why we so often ignore the extraordinary. But especially when you
hear the hype about heroes, you might remember that very special band of
brothers, soldiers who honor the rest of us by their quiet sacrifices in
peace and war.
COL (Ret.) Ken Allard is an executive-in-residence at UTSA and the
author of "Warheads." Email: Warheads6 (at) aol.com
Subscribe to InfoSec News