Drenched in sweat, Army Capt. Aaron Hall peeled off his soggy socks and applied a liberal dose of foot powder before slipping on a dry pair and rallying his troops back to their throbbing feet. For an outfit used to being ferried from fight to fight in armored vehicles, a 50-mile march through the Appalachians was a little much.
Perhaps no unit better exemplifies the challenges presented by the Army's transition from desert warfare in Iraq to rugged mountain campaigns in Afghanistan than the 3rd Infantry Division's 4th Brigade, whose tanks and Bradley assault vehicles were among the first to rumble into Baghdad in the 2003 invasion.
Under a 2007 plan to grow the Army and diversify its forces, 4th Brigade is the only mechanized unit being ordered to ditch its tanks and Bradleys and relearn how to move through a war zone on foot.
‘We're our own transportation’
Which is how Hall and his soldiers found themselves zigzagging through the mountains of north Georgia, trying to cover 50 miles in three days. Even after serving last year as a platoon leader in Iraq, Hall wasn't used to that kind of exertion.
"Whenever they said `road march,' it was pretty much get in your Bradleys and ride 20 miles," said Hall, 28, of Canton, N.C. "Now, it's put on your boots and your rucksack and start walking. We're our own transportation."
Commanders say the retooled brigade should be ready to deploy again late next year.
About 40 percent of the 3rd Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment's soldiers are holdovers from the unit's previous incarnation as the 4th Battalion, 64th Armor Regiment.
After the unit returned from its third Iraq deployment in December, its tank drivers, gunners and mechanics transferred to other units as the switch to light infantry took hold. Many infantrymen trained to fight with Bradleys, tracked vehicles that resemble small tanks, stayed and are now getting used to fighting on foot.
As a mechanized infantry unit, each soldier had a designated seat in a vehicle. As light infantry, a rifle company of 135 troops has just five vehicles — Humvees and trucks — to share.
1st Sgt. Chad Brown learned to count on the Bradley's speed and lethal weaponry during his three tours in Iraq. His soldiers would travel to drop-off points shielded by the vehicle's thick armor, then conduct foot patrols under cover of its mounted machine gun and 25 mm cannon.
"Going from mech my whole career to light infantry, there is a concern of, `Oh man, where is the heavy firepower?'" said Brown, 34, of Kingsley, Mich. "I've been shot at sitting in Humvees and in Bradleys, and obviously I feel much more comfortable sitting in a Bradley."
Getting comfortable with being exposed
For soldiers used to the protection of armored vehicles, getting them comfortable with the added exposure of maneuvering on foot is mostly about back-to-basics training, as that's how troops just entering the Army learn to fight, said Maj. John Grantz, executive officer of the 3-15 Infantry.
By training almost daily in battle drills and live-fire exercises, Grantz said, holdovers from the armored regiment can see advantages to fighting without big vehicles. Foot soldiers can move with more stealth than a lumbering Bradley, he said, and aren't as easy for enemies to spot.
"A lot of guys don't like being cooped up in a vehicle, because they're a bigger target, but others feel more protected," Grantz said. "It's all relative."
Tanks and Bradleys, instrumental in the flat desert of Iraq, have been of limited use in Afghanistan's mountainous landscape. The Pentagon began a shift toward adding more light brigades, which can deploy faster and move through more difficult terrain, in late 2007, before the current troop surge was ordered for Afghanistan.
Several other brigades are being created from scratch; Fort Stewart's 4th Brigade was the only one slated to transform from armor to light infantry.
Col. Tom James, chief of staff for the 3rd Infantry and a former 4th Brigade commander, said adding a light brigade to Fort Stewart, the largest Army post east of the Mississippi River, would help it meet the demands of modern warfare. Previously, the division's ground forces consisted of all armor brigades.
"If you look at the conflicts in the future, based on our current assessment, it's more small conflicts and smaller units of extremists ... than a pitched battle between two armies like we saw in Desert Shield and Desert Storm," James said.
Trained for months
Soldiers of the 3-15 Infantry trained to get into better shape for months before hitting the Appalachian Trail and other mountain trails in north Georgia. They ran three to eight miles a day and tackled an 18-mile road march on their flat home turf before hitting the mountains.
Even without the 70 pounds of gear — rucksacks, body armor and rifles — the soldiers would carry in a combat zone, the mountain march proved daunting.
At 4,000 feet above sea level, less than half the elevation of Afghanistan's Hindu Kush mountains, some soldiers were forced off the trail early by shortness of breath. Others grappled with aches in their feet and thighs from uphill and downhill stretches.
"Going downhill and the steep inclines, it's just stomping your feet," said 24-year-old Spc. Sean O'Reilly of Las Vegas, stopping to wrap his right ankle in a bandage for extra support. "Walking downhill is kicking my butt."
A medic had Spc. Jeremy Pacheco sit for an IV of saline solution after he complained of leg cramps, a symptom of dehydration.
"I just sweat a lot," said Pacheco, 21, of Fontana, Calif. "My boots are soaked, and I haven't even been in the water."
It could be several months before the 3-15 Infantry gets deployment orders specifying whether it's headed to Afghanistan.
"I've been four times," 44-year-old Sgt. Maj. Mark Barnes said of Iraq as he rested by a waterfall shaded by tall pines, "and I'd kind of like to see Afghanistan — it's a change of venue.
"But at the same time, Afghanistan's more dangerous. So we better be careful what we wish for."