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US Army Missile Units Set To Strike

April 27, 1999

IN CENTRAL ALBANIA (AP) _ The Bulldogs are waiting.

This U.S. Army mobile missile launcher unit, somewhere in central Albania, is ready to strike at the Yugoslav army at any time, hoping to be the first American army unit to fire a shot in the Kosovo conflict.

The question the crew keeps asking: When?

It’s been days since the Bulldogs _ the nickname of the ``Bravo battery″ of the 1st Battalion of the 27th Field artillery _ pulled out of base camp near the Albanian capital, Tirana. They keep on the move, wondering when and if the order will come to go into action.

``It’s history,″ said Cpt. Lance Boothe, the 29-year-old commander of the Bulldogs, based in Babenhausen, Germany. ``It’s an honor that my unit was picked to be first.″

The M-39 tactical missiles they would unleash have never been fired against hostile forces in Europe. The guided missile is a terrifying weapon that explodes over a target, releasing 950 baseball-sized bomblets that destroy everything within about a half square mile.

``It’s like popcorn going off,″ Boothe said. ``You don’t want to be at the receiving end. It’s like steel rain. It’s devastating.″

The Bulldogs wait, not knowing if the latest mission is another rehearsal or the real thing. Boothe hopes _ he feels sure _ that his Bulldogs will be first.

The mission began with the MLRS _ Mobile Launch and Reload System _ unit slipping out of the Task Force Hawk Base in the middle of the night, under heavy protection from other troops. The column rumbles slowly over the rough roads in central Albania, meeting up in the blackness at a pre-selected firing point on a small rise in the landscape.

In the darkness, Boothe herds 28-ton Self-Propelled Launcher-Loaders into position along a muddy road. There’s an eerie whine in the darkness as the vehicles, which run on tracks like tanks, rattle by. The scene is made even more eerie by the green cast of a soldier’s night-vision scope.

Night-vision glasses don’t always help, though. A soldier backs his Humvee _ the army multi-purpose vehicle _ into an officer’s vehicle with a crunch, and endures a harangue of curses. Another Humvee slips off the muddy road, requiring a wrecker to pull it out.

With everything in place, Boothe’s team rests. It’s daylight, and raining.

The soldiers wait for the word, taking catnaps when they can, sleeping bolt upright in the seats of their Humvees, supported by the stiff vest and collar of their flak jackets.

``You gotta be able to sleep in tight spots,″ said Spc. Nathan Stowe, 22 of Saginaw, Mich. ``But it sure feels good when you finally stretch out.″

The day drags on. Some stir, eat, read, or sleep again.

By evening, most of the unit is up, talking about favorite movies, joking and reminiscing like friends on a campout.

Boothe feels sure this is the night for a launch.

``I feel sorry for (the Yugoslavs) because a lot of enemy soldiers are going to die tonight,″ said Boothe, an 11-year Army veteran and a native of Brigges, Idaho.

He’s wrong: Nightfall comes and there’s no order to shoot. Instead, they’re ordered to move.

They scoot to a new position and Stowe, the captain’s driver, reads the book ``A Simple Plan,″ under the red light of the low-visibility flashlight clipped onto the sun visor of the Humvee. Then he too sleeps, awakened regularly by the radio’s crackle or his captain’s orders.

There is a constant, reassuring rumble from motors and generators through the night. In the background, hundreds of frogs croak.

By daylight, the team stirs again.

Some attempt personal hygiene, shaving and brushing their teeth with bottled water, cleaning off the worst mud with baby wipes.

A sergeant makes a pot of coffee on a camp stove. He’s instantly popular, since some of these troops haven’t tasted coffee in weeks.

The unit moves again in the pitch dark.

``We have 10 hours of waiting for about 10 seconds of excitement,″ Boothe says. He’s wrong. The wait is much longer.

The men snooze again.

They wait. There is still no launch order. Boothe fears that another unit will be called out to replace them. Another night falls, and the Bulldogs move again. They wait all day. They are still waiting.

``At my level, there are no political considerations,″ Boothe says. ``I get an order and execute.″

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