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The Boston Globe

Specialist Luis Feliciano Ready To Scout Out Trouble

By Brian MacQuarrie

March 18, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The Boston Globe. All rights reserved. 

NORTHERN DESERT, Kuwait - Modern warfare, American-style, is an amalgamation of space-age technology and awesome force. But if US troops rumble north to Iraq, soldiers like Specialist Luis Feliciano of Worcester will perform a job as old as war itself.

Feliciano, 20, is assigned to the Forward Support Element, a dry- sounding name for what will be an old-fashioned, hard-riding scout unit. Moving well in front of Abrams tanks that demolished their Iraqi foes in Operation Desert Storm, sitting in a two-man Humvee with a 50-caliber machine gun for protection, Feliciano and other American scouts will scour the field until they see the enemy.

Even in a military age of computer-guided howitzers and laser tracking, the Army's commanders still use soldiers as cat's whiskers to probe and feel what they can't yet see. It's a dangerous job, and Feliciano concedes he's a little scared.

"This is my first real-world mission," says Feliciano, who joined the Army in July 2000. "My mom is pretty concerned right now."

If hostilities begin, Feliciano's concern will be to dash to an area where battle planners such as Captain William "Chip" Colbert of Malden, assigned to a Third Infantry Division headquarters unit, believe the enemy lies in wait. Once there, Feliciano will use the subtle contours of a flat desert landscape to conceal himself and his vehicle while he watches the enemy, plots the location, and reports his findings to headquarters.

"We're painting a picture for the brigade," Feliciano says.

The scouts are a bold, quick-thinking unit whose cocky irreverence sets them apart from some other sectors of the Army. That's exactly the kind of demeanor that the military expects for soldiers who go looking for trouble, says Sergeant First Class Ronald Marshall, 35, of Fordyce, Ark. Marshall has a long history in forward reconnaissance, and he clearly revels in the maverick nature of his subordinates.

"They're aggressive, and they're taught to be that way," says Marshall, who was wounded in Panama. "They're taught to be very persuasive at what they want. Once they find what they're looking for, we start lighting it up."

Colbert, 29, has been drafting a battle plan for the Third Infantry's Third Brigade for the past four months, he said. Although the scouts will be dispatched to where Colbert and others expect to find elements of the Iraqi Army, the commanders are prepared to expect the unexpected.

That's where on-the-ground judgments from soldiers such as Feliciano will help dictate how the Army reacts if the battle does not unfold according to script. "These guys are probably the most important assets we have," says Captain Bryan Kilbride, 26, of Woburn.

Kilbride, part of the Third Brigade's artillery battalion, will stand beside Colbert in brigade headquarters and will field reports from scouts such as Feliciano, who will use lasers to pinpoint target distance. Then in short order, Kilbride will decide whether to recommend that those targets be hit, and what weapons to use to hit them.

"In a perfect world, Chip and I are just sitting in our chairs, saying, `Hey, what part of the plan are we at now?' " Kilbride says. "But if it doesn't work that way, this brigade is prepared enough to do anything."

The optimum plan is to see the enemy without the enemy seeing the scouts. This requires stealth, plus counterinstinctive restraint. The scouts are instructed not to engage the enemy, and must be ready to dash back to the front instead of dueling with forces that probably will be better armed.

"If you get ID'd by the enemy, it gets pretty dangerous," Kilbride says. As Private First Class James Cale, 20, of Massillon, Ohio, adds, "We do a lot of thinking, and a lot of praying."

Feliciano agrees the work is risky. But, he says, "our team has trained enough, and we pretty much have confidence in our mission."

Like nearly all the soldiers here, Feliciano answers questions about risk with detached amusement. War, by its nature, is dangerous business that Feliciano says he readily accepts for several reasons.

A native of Puerto Rico who moved to Worcester when he was 8 years old, Feliciano is not hesitant to say that his Army service is motivated by a sense of duty. "This country has done a lot for my family," he says in a soft voice. "This is a way to give back."

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