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October 19, 2001


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Special Forces Leave for War Without Fanfare


CLARKSVILLE, Tenn., Oct. 17 Judy Pryor did not show up to teach her aerobics class at the Clarksville Athletic Club on Sunday evening. She apologized to her students the next day. She had been saying goodbye to her husband, who is a member of the Fifth Special Forces Group, one of the Army's Green Beret units based here at Fort Campbell on the Kentucky-Tennessee border. He had received orders to leave for operations in Afghanistan.

As the air attacks on Taliban targets in Afghanistan have presumably softened the Taliban's air defenses, commando units are widely expected to begin their search for Osama bin Laden soon, and some of them will come from Fort Campbell, which is better known as the home of the 101st Airborne Division, the Screaming Eagles.

But unlike a full-scale deployment by the 101st Airborne, which occurred in the gulf war in 1991, with big Air Force transport planes lifting out thousands of soldiers from an airfield inside Fort Campbell, the special forces troops are leaving quietly, with no fanfare and amid as much secrecy as possible.

Laura Skelly's husband, a captain in the Fifth Special Forces, left almost immediately after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, going somewhere in Uzbekistan, the former Soviet republic on the northern border of Afghanistan, she said. Lisa Kirkland's husband, Sean Kirkland, a staff sergeant in the Fifth Special Forces, left on Oct. 1. And one woman who works as a Web site coordinator for the press office at Austin Peay State University and spoke on the condition that her name not be used, said she expected her husband to leave in the next few days. He has already left twice, but each time returned the same night after someone changed his orders.

Mrs. Kirkland, whose husband is a sniper in Bravo Company of the Fifth Special Forces, said she did not know where he was, except that it was in "a forward position." He has been sending her e-mail messages, or telephoning, every day, until today.

"That is kind of scary," she said. "Maybe they are going into action."

Sergeant Kirkland was excited to go, said Mrs. Kirkland, who is a receptionist at the Clarksville Economic Development Council. Clarksville abuts Fort Campbell, and with a population of 104,000, is the fastest growing city in Tennessee. The Army is its biggest industry.

"He's wanted to do this since he was 5 years old, in Wyandotte, Mich., honestly," Mrs. Kirkland said of her husband's reaction to going to war. They have a photograph of her husband, as a 5-year-old boy, with a rifle and army gear. "Now he was really anxious to get there and is very proud of their abilities in unconventional warfare," she said.

Sergeant Kirkland's company trained in Uzbekistan for four months last spring, his wife said.

As for her own feelings, Mrs. Kirkland said, "I'm torn. I'm happy he's actually getting to do what he trained so hard for, but he's not playing around."

The woman at Austin Peay, whose husband is a first sergeant in the Fifth Special Forces, says she and her husband, both from Springdale, Ark., had been watching "Band of Brothers," the HBO series about the exploits of the 101st Airborne Division in Europe in World War II. "He loves it, seeing all the tactics, and it has really helped him," she said. "He knows from watching it he can't be afraid."

"But I look at it from a different perspective," she said of the combat scenes. Referring to all the casualties, she said, "I say, `Oh, that could happen to him.' "

To try to prepare herself, and help her husband, she has written him a series of letters and sealed them, so that when he gets into combat and is not reachable by e-mail, he will have something from her to read.

"I read my Bible," she said. "It's what gets me through the day."

"I know I have to hold myself together now, till he leaves," she said. "Otherwise, it would upset him."

One of the last things the soldiers did before leaving was strip off the shoulder patch in the form of a lightning bolt that identifies them as members of the Fifth Special Forces, and their insignia of rank. "It's in case they get captured," Mrs. Skelly said.

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