"Black Hawk Bob" Gallagher is 10 miles from the Iraqi border, making one of the world's most expensive cups of coffee by dangling a metal cup over the searing exhaust of an Abrams tank that takes eight gallons of fuel to start.
He was, until recently, what his fellow tankers call a "snake eater," a light infantryman, who earned his nickname leading a platoon of elite Army Rangers through the bloody 1993 battle in Somalia retold in the book and movie "Black Hawk Down."
Now the Pentagon has handed him a new assignment. If Gallagher crosses the Iraqi frontier, this time he -- and much of the United States Army -- will roll in protected by Cold War-era heavy metal.
The conflict in Iraq envisioned by Pentagon war strategists is closer to the 1991 Persian Gulf War than to the nimble maneuvers of special operations forces in Somalia, Panama and Afghanistan. After months of internal debate within the Bush administration over invasion scenarios involving as few as 50,000 ground troops, Pentagon war planners have assembled 225,000 soldiers, arrayed in an arc around the regime of Saddam Hussein.
Poised at the vanguard is Gallagher's unit, the 2nd Brigade of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, from Ft. Stewart, Ga., whose tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles are poised to join in the first wave of ground forces to roll toward Baghdad. The brigade of 3,500 soldiers is known as the Army's "iron fist," the most heavily armed rapid deployment force in the world.
From an officer corps schooled in the broad art of battle to staff sergeants, corporals and privates, the brigade has formed the "tip of the spear" of American military might in the Persian Gulf since September, longer than any other American unit.
The "Spartan brigade," as it is called, is led by a cerebral and politically wired colonel and a cast of combat commanders who learned their way around southern Iraq during the Gulf War. This time, their contingency plans include a map whose route is summarized on the muzzle of an M-1A1 Abrams tank: "All the way to Baghdad."
The drive from Kuwait City to Camp New York is a 2 1/2-hour trek up the "highway of death" on which U.S. airstrikes targeted fleeing Iraqi soldiers in 1991, then through miles of powdery sand and past a lone tree that brigade members call "the Kuwaiti National Forest."
The drivers carve their own way, dodging kangaroo rats and scorpions on a dirt "road" that shifts with each rainstorm and gust of wind. Even regulars use four-wheel-drive and a compass. Past a well-guarded checkpoint is the place Army wags call "Lower Manhattan," an expanse of tents, trucks and camouflage-clad soldiers that blend together in a sun-parched haze of shades from tan to taupe.
Here, soldiers gear themselves up for war like NFL contenders headed toward the playoffs. The bravado is borne out on tents bearing names such as "The Assassins" and on tanks with slogans like "Call Your Chaplain."
The arrival of the brigade's parent 3rd division early this year, along with its companion 1st and 3rd brigades, has given the buildup a growing sense of inevitability, soldiers say. When the brigade's commander, Col. David Perkins, arrived with the small advance group in September, 1,700 soldiers were loosely sprinkled over the terrain of Camp New York. It is now packed with 3,500 soldiers and surrounded by 13,000 more in four neighboring camps -- New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Virginia.
The population explosion has strained scarce resources.
First to go each morning is the hot water, then the cold water. Several individual mess halls have been consolidated into three mammoth assembly-line dining tents, where the queues can jut 100 yards into the desert. Soldiers can pick up anything from toothpaste to DVD players at the PX, but the wait to get in is now two hours.
Driving to the camp often means falling in behind caravans of trucks bearing tanks, Bradleys and the provisions of war.
Almost no one expects to leave here without first heading "up north."
Few soldiers have a stronger background to gauge the political chatter in Washington than Perkins. When Newt Gingrich became the speaker of the House in 1995, the Army lent him Perkins -- then a young staff officer -- to organize the personnel in the speaker's office. Perkins sat in on high-level meetings for 18 months, including talks with then-President Clinton and Defense Secretary William J. Perry. When Gingrich, now a former congressman, visited the camp last month, he embraced Perkins as an old friend.
The 44-year-old Keene, N.H., native is a multi-tasking news junkie who leaves the Fox News- Channel running round-the-clock in his tent. Each report of diplomatic maneuvers that could delay the onset of war prompts groans from the aides who've pirated Perkins' cable line in a neighboring tent.
Slated to move to the Pentagon as a policy planner for the Joint Chiefs of Staff in June, Perkins muses, "My wife will probably have to move without me."
In more than 100 interviews over 10 days, only one brigade soldier -- a Gulf War vet who is scheduled to retire in June -- expressed confidence that they would return to Georgia without a fight. With diplomatic maneuvers pressing back the date of the likely invasion, it's hard to keep soldiers who have been here since September at maximum readiness.
"It would be like getting your team ready for the Super Bowl and then staying at peak performance for six to nine months," says Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, who once commanded the 2nd Brigade. "That's a challenge, but good units and good leaders figure out how to do it. No doubt, they're ready."
A few have panicked under the realization that war is likely soon, such as the soldier who was hospitalized for trying to suffocate himself with a plastic bag, then wandered into a street at the main base at Camp Doha stark naked. Or the young advance scout at Camp New York who Army officials said feigned illness and was sent home, with charges to come later. But most of the soldiers here, who count their time in missed holidays and children's birthdays, say they take seriously the brigade motto taken from Isaiah 6:8: "Send me."
It's the waiting that gets to them.
"The soldiers are saying, 'It looks like we're going to have to go through Baghdad before we go home. So let's go,' " says Lt. Col. Eric Schwartz, who commands one of the brigade's three combat forces, the 1st Battalion, 64th Armor Regiment.
The Gulf War veterans seem more eager to ensure that they won't have to return a third time. Schwartz is one of the "Three Amigos," a closely knit trio of commanders who know the Iraqi terrain, one another and their units unusually well: Schwartz, Lt. Col. Philip "Flip" deCamp and Lt. Col. Stephen Twitty. The brigade is built around three maneuvering combat battalions, a headquarters unit with a related company, and the Eagle Troop 9th Cavalry and support units. They speak in a shorthand uncommon among commanders, who usually serve less than two years together.
After "Gulf One," none expected to return.
"I am not ready to go home yet," says Twitty, whose slow-talking style has soldiers calling him "the black John Wayne." "I know if I go home, I'll be back."
So they train as never before.
At Ft. Stewart, training is limited by space, environmental and safety concerns. But here, the entire brigade can carry out live tank, artillery, rifle and aircraft fire exercises within earshot of Iraq. Soldiers accustomed to playing laser tag and shooting paint guns back at Ft. Stewart focus on a regimen of perilous training and urban combat drills.
Gallagher, a 40-year-old command sergeant major, has scrawled his blood type, "A Pos," on his T-shirt with a bullet-scarred hand and arm. Below the shrapnel scar on his back is a four-leaf-clover tattoo. A tank, the foot soldier grudgingly concedes -- in a New Jersey drawl loud enough so he can hear it through shattered eardrums -- has its advantages.
With the prospect of city-by-city battles from Basra to Baghdad, commanders here are paying far more attention than usual to urban combat. The brigade has bought nearly 100 Mossberg shotguns designed to blow open door locks for house-to-house searches. On Range 6, a 40-minute drive from Camp New York, Gallagher has crafted a battered mock city called "Chinatown" from his memories of urban battles in Somalia and Panama.
Unlike the small and comparatively safe "shoot houses" at Ft. Stewart, the mock city has four intersections and flimsy walls built for real bullets to pass through -- "like the real world." Soldiers shoot while Bradley fighting vehicles and M-1A1 tanks roll through, in one case crashing into a two-story building. The training is broad, and Gallagher likes to include "stuff you don't read in books." If you lose the dust cover for your M-16's muzzle, he tells the boys from Charlie Company on the firing range, use a condom like the gulf fighters did. Strap your weapon around your neck but not your arms, so you can get it off quickly in urban combat.
After training that can exceed 12 hours, the troops on Range 6 retreat to two-soldier tents and boxed meals.
"The Army practices being miserable, so that when you are miserable, it's not really that bad," explains DeCamp, a fourth-generation soldier and son of an Army two-star general.
When all goes well, the soldiers have little contact with brigade leaders.
Gallagher had to explain to Perkins late one night why Staff Sgt. Aaron Guss took an M-16 round in the belly during a "dry fire" drill at Chinatown. It was the second major accident since September. In the other, a soldier shot himself in the head after failing to clear his rifle chamber, and his colleagues took the lesson. This too, Gallagher says, is part of training.
"Sir, we've got to teach them that they're going to get shot," Gallagher says, "and that's just an owie."
This time, it is. An M-16 bullet is designed to enter like a dime and rip open a softball-sized cavity, but this one doesn't, although the young soldier had just taken the Kevlar plates out of his vest.
The bullet struck at an angle, shredding the vest but merely dropping Guss with a large gash and a surprised look.
Conditioning through repetition is a theme throughout the training here. DeCamp is reading "On Killing," a critique of the entertainment media and the military by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman that argues that both institutions, through repetition and violence, inure children to their natural revulsion toward brutality, making them more susceptible to becoming killers.
"We've got to make sure these guys will shoot," DeCamp says.
"You're going to have to kill people," he tells a platoon leader. "If they present a threat to you or your command, you have to kill them. Unless you're positive that they're not, you have to keep shooting."
It's not normally a problem for tankers, because they don't see the dead enemy up close, DeCamp says. The urban combat likely to be faced by the infantry soldiers whose job it is to climb out of their Bradleys and engage the enemy is different.
Gallagher tells his soldiers about the hard choices -- the time he shot a baby-bearing Somali mother who was signaling an unseen gunman. The shot between the eyes for the Somali firing rocket-propelled grenades with two children strapped to his chest.
The lesson: Don't consider gender or size. Look at the hands. Save the babies if you can, he says -- but above all, eliminate the threat.
"What we do isn't nice," Gallagher explains to a visitor, "but we're nice people."
DeCamp is unapologetic: It is a soldier's job to kill the enemy. Soldiers take their weapons everywhere, making the mess halls the best-armed cafeterias in the world. The goal is to make the soldier respond automatically, unemotionally.
The only thing the commanders can't replicate, DeCamp muses later, is the absolute fear of death.
The conditioning can automate responses, commanders say, but nothing works like the adrenaline surge that accompanies the commander's orders to prepare for battle.
"You know when it's really real?" Twitty asks. "When you cross that border. And I will tell you that I have not experienced any other feeling in my military career fuller than when I crossed that border 12 years ago. Your adrenaline is flowing, you're thinking about all the training you've undergone, and you're thinking about your family. God, it was intimidating 12 years ago. You look across and you see nothing but the desert flat. You'd be scared to move for fear you can't find your way from one place to another."
The conditioning extends to movie nights. The brigade's command staff unwinds to comedies like "Dumb and Dumber," "National Lampoon's Van Wilder" and -- at Perkins' insistence -- the Cold War nuclear farce "Dr. Strangelove."
But across the camp, Capt. Peter Johnson, a 6-foot-2 Gulf War combat-soldier-turned-chaplain, is screening selections that starkly augur the potential conflict to come: "Band of Brothers" and "Saving Private Ryan." As the credits roll, he says, he sees the wheels turning in the soldiers' heads.
"War is a lot like surgery. It's painful, it's bloody, it's not pleasant to observe. But it's often necessary," Johnson says. "I tell the soldiers, 'As ugly as it can be, there is dignity, there is honor, there is a sense of justice.' ... The average Joe knows that if we don't do something decisive now, we're either going to come back and do it again or our sons are."
Hendren was recently on assignment in Kuwait.