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For Fort Bragg unit heading to Haiti, it's hurry up and wait

By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 17, 2010; 12:39 PM

POPE AIR FORCE BASE, N.C. -- It is the phrase the military is known for: Hurry up and wait.

And it is very evident here in an airplane hangar where 36 soldiers, part of the Army's 18th Airborne Corps, entered their third day of waiting for a plane to take them to Haiti to help with earthquake relief efforts.

Of the 3,600 soldiers from Fort Bragg expected to be deployed, only 270 have made it to Haiti so far.

Lieutenant Colonel Pat Hynes of the 82nd Airborne said that one of the problems in getting troops there faster is that there are not enough forklifts to unload supplies and not enough fuel.

"When you have limited fuel capacity and then you're out of gas you can't take off," he said. "It becomes like a parking garage so that as new aircraft want to come in . . . they can't find a spot."

Of the 18th Airborne's crew, about 50 did make it to Haiti Friday to find "very austere" conditions, according to Sergeant Major Sharon Opeka, a spokeswoman for the unit. The group slept in an open field with only the supplies they had on their backs, water and Meals Ready to Eat.

Back at Bragg, the 36 soldiers of the 18th Airborne couldn't get off the ground.

"This hurry up and wait stuff is what it's all about," said Master Sergeant Stacy Stanley, who's been in the Army 22 years. "I'm used to it. I don't get upset about it. I know it happens."

The soldiers include medics, logistical planners, generator mechanics, military police and intelligence specialists. They got the call Wednesday to be ready to deploy and reported to the base. They got their weapons, shots for measles, mumps, rubella and typhoid, plus malaria pills.

And then started the wait.

Saturday morning the group hung out in a conference room turned into a prep room with weapons leaning against the walls. Some soldiers caught a catnap. Two others cleaned their M-4s. Four young soldiers played an X-box game, "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare."

As Saturday morning turned into lunch at the chow hall, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Greg Meyer and Master Sergeant Rindi Foster planned an afternoon treat for the waiting troops -- showers.

Nineteen minutes later things changed. The call came to get on the bus. In six minutes, the troops with their gear and weapons were packed on a bus, headed to an airport hangar at Pope Air Force base.

Drive to hangar. Unload. Load ammo. Call home.

"Yes honey, we're going to help some people," said Major Jesse Godoy in a phone call to his young daughter. "Gather up some movies and we can watch them when I come home."

Wait.

Another update at 2:44 p.m. -- a new wait time -- one hour for a new crew to come in and fly the plane.

But just shy of 4 p.m., there came yet another change. The crew that was going to fly the plane couldn't because they had reached the maximum limit of the Air Force safety flying time. A new crew would have to come in and check the aircraft. New estimated leave time -- 8 p.m.

"This is a minor delay in the big scheme of things," Meyer said.

At 6:35 p.m., Meyer pulled the plug on trying to get out Saturday night.

"We're bumped again," he told his waiting troops.

Head back to the conference room and bed down for the night. Wake up at 3 a.m. and report to the hangar at 4 a.m. Their plane would leave Sunday morning -- knock on wood, Foster told them.

A soldier's wife brought by extra blankets and sleeping bags because most of their gear had been loaded on pallets to go on a plane. Some of the men dubbed her the "sleeping bag fairy."

Inside the conference room, soldiers chatted about what their weekend plans would have been if they weren't headed to Haiti. Riding in a new blue Mustang convertible. Skiing, camping. Playing with kids. A newlywed soldier said he'd be looking for a new house.

Sunday morning at 4 a.m., the troops left the conference room in pouring rain, loaded with their gear. They boarded a bus and were back at the hangar.

By 4:44 a.m., as the soldiers drank lukewarm coffee from the Red Cross, their leaders had another update -- another delay.

New estimated departure time: 8 p.m.

"We thought it was a mechanical issue but that's not it," said Meyer. "They're not letting any planes take off unless they have a place to go or else you end up orbiting because there's no place to land."

At noon, the 36 troops of the 18th Airborne Corps were given yet another new departure time -- 9 p.m.

In the meantime, more waiting.

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