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At Fort Drum, Family and Nuptial Worries


September 22, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

FORT DRUM, N.Y. – Margarita Morales hugged her son, in his beret and military fatigues, at a gas station outside this sprawling Army base this afternoon. She held him long and hard, cheek to cheek, her flesh close to the flesh born of her, and it was hard to keep her tears at bay or to let him go, she said, because when presidents talk of war, it is mothers who pay.

"Sometimes you think it's like sleeping, it's like a nightmare," she said. "You want to say it's not really true. It's not really happening. But it is happening. It's happening."

Yesterday, Mrs. Morales, 52, boarded a United Airlines flight out of Puerto Rico, where she owns a small business, along with her other son and a friend to make the long trip to this part of upstate New York, hard by the Adirondacks. She was terrified of being hijacked but more terrified of never seeing her son, Luis Morales, 24, a specialist with the 10th Mountain Division, alive again.

Everyone at Fort Drum is on edge, waiting for orders from Washington, expecting to soon be sent to Afghanistan or some other distant theater in President Bush's new war on terrorists.

The 10th Mountain Division here is light attack infantry, more than 8,400 strong, supported by helicopters, and they are second only to the 82d Airborne in reputation as a formidable force that can be deployed quickly. They served in Somalia during the doomed efforts to stop the famine there in 1992 and 1993, and in Haiti guarding President Jean-Bertrand Aristide as he returned in 1994 and 1995.

About 3,500 soldiers from the division are supposed to be sent to Kosovo next month. An additional 301 are stationed in Bosnia now, and 506 in the Sinai Peninsula.

Specialist Morales, who grew up in New Hampshire, was calm and forthright as his mother, brother and fiancée arrived here today to spend a few precious hours with him. "We're not sure yet," he said. "We could leave at a moment's notice." Then he added a professional soldier's bravado: "We've got to go and take care of business. I get paid for this."

Rumors coursed through the communities around Fort Drum today, whispers that the 10th Mountain Division was about to be deployed. Some said the ground troops were going, but not the air wing. The first brigade, it was rumored, would go out on a DC-9 tonight, with no destination known. This morning, local residents said dozens of helicopters, flying in tight formation, filled the skies with their insect-like shapes and chopping roar. It was an unusually massive maneuver. "They never fly like that," a clerk at a convenience store said, asking not to be identified.

But R. D. Murphy, the garrison deputy public relations officer, said the division had not yet received any orders to deploy. The base, however, was on a high level of alert. Soldiers patrolled the edges of the airfield and busloads of men in battle fatigues were arriving at the barracks around 4:30 p.m.

Some soldiers with knowledge of flight plans said they were expecting several large transport planes to bring other members of the mountain division back from Fort Polk, in Louisiana, tonight, where they have been doing some routine training.

Although it is still called the 10th Mountain Division, the name these days is a misnomer. The black-bereted soldiers are trained to fight in almost any terrain, from jungles to deserts to urban landscapes. Those here would not necessarily be the first troops the president might call upon to fight in the barren mountains of Afghanistan, despite their moniker, military experts said. The Green Berets or other commando units that can be quickly dropped in and evacuated are a better bet.

"It's fairly an honorific name," said retired Army Col. Daniel M. Smith, a researcher for the Center for Defense Information, a nonprofit group in Washington. "The idea of using a conventional division in Afghanistan just doesn't fly. You can't get it there."

"I'm pretty scared," said Patricia Savoie, 22, a teacher from Chichester, N.H. She had planned to marry Luis Morales next Saturday in New Hampshire, the capstone of a love affair that began in Albany, where she was teaching and he was visiting as part of a honor guard to bury a veteran of the unit.

"It should be the happiest time of our life, but it's the most anxious," she said.

The Morales family and Ms. Savoie went onto the base to wait for word at a hotel there off limits to anyone but the family of the soldiers. "We will probably relax and rest and spend time together," Specialist Morales said. "Just relax."

"And pray," his mother said.

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