FORT HOOD, Texas - Despite the tears of their families and the fears of an increasingly hard-fought war, soldiers of the Army's 4th Infantry Division began leaving for Iraq yesterday with rousing cheers and great relief that their two-month wait to deploy was finally over.
The 12,500-strong division, a heavily armored group that has the Army's most highly advanced equipment, had received its deployment orders Jan. 20.
But it has remained in Central Texas because Turkey, where the 4th was supposed to be based, refused to let U.S. troops use its country as a staging ground.
That the division was left idling, even as critics have argued that it could provide exactly the kind of firepower that forces already in Iraq need, has made many increasingly impatient - nowhere more than here.
"I kind of got mad because we've been ready to go and they're short-handed out there," said Armando Villa, a Black Hawk helicopter crew chief who expects to head to Iraq in a few days.
Villa was among several thousand soldiers who gathered yesterday on a field on this vast Army base - the world's largest - for a ceremonial farewell.
Even as they joined their brass for the ceremony, though, on another side of the base others of their ranks were getting ready to board an airplane that would take them to Kuwait. Officials said about 1,500 soldiers will leave every day.
In Kuwait, they will meet their tanks, helicopters, weaponry and other gear, which had been loaded onto 30 ships that headed for Turkey weeks ago.
The ships were left at sea, however, as the United States first tried to gain access to Turkey and, having failed, tried to figure out an alternative. The ships are now sailing through the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf en route to Kuwait.
The process of unloading the equipment is expected to take until the second week of April, officials said.
Better late than never for a division whose storied history includes being the first on the beach at Normandy.
As soldiers and their families clustered around a field, representatives of the division's various units paraded their colors, brightly colored flags flapping in a brisk breeze under a trademark Texas-blue sky.
The units' banners and a U.S. flag that has flown in Bosnia, Afghanistan and other conflicts were then "cased," rolled around their poles or folded and wrapped in olive drab material, to be unfurled when the units arrive in their destinations. It was symbolic of the units' own readiness, the soldiers packed and awaiting their long-delayed arrival on the battlefield.
"The Iron Horse has been summoned," roared the commander of the 4th, Major Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, using the nickname of the task force that includes the infantry and related units, "and we will answer that call."
He lauded the soldiers arrayed before him for continuing to train and remain motivated and ready as they awaited their departure.
"A lot is made of the 4th Infantry Division's modern equipment and capabilities," he said, "but what it comes down to is soldiers. ... Our cause is right and our resolve is unwavering."
Even as each day of the war has brought news of deaths, casualties and soldiers taken prisoner - the two Apache helicopter pilots captured by the Iraqis were based at Fort Hood - many of the soldiers seemed eager to head toward the action rather than be left behind to watch it on television.
"I've been getting impatient. I watch a little TV, and it makes me wish I was out there, helping out," said Miguel Rosales, a private who works as a mechanic on the Bradley fighting vehicles. "I wish I was out there making it easier on them, taking some of the weight off their shoulders."
Still, Rosales admitted that he has been thinking about a similar support unit of mechanics, from Fort Bliss, Texas, who have been taken prisoner.
"I guess everyone's in the same danger," said Rosales, who expects to leave soon.
While Rosales has been anxious to get to the front lines, his wife admits being grateful for the delay thus far.
"We've been waiting for him to go, but we're thankful he hasn't gone anywhere yet," said Gloria Rosales, who with her husband has daughters ages 2, 3 and 5. "That was the biggest thing, we got to spend more time together, more family time."
That was a common sentiment throughout the crowd, the soldiers itching to leave, their families not in so much of a rush to pack them off.
"As the time got closer to my delivery date, I thought it might be prolonged two more weeks," Regina Pomranky said wistfully as she anticipated the birth of her second child.
A Black Hawk pilot, her husband agreed it would be nice to be here for the birth of the son they've already named Zachary, but duty calls.
"You know you're going to leave, you know it's going to happen, so you're like, 'When is it going to happen?'" he said.
That has been the question many have asked, here and in the halls of the Pentagon and among war analysts. Critics say the United States shouldn't have gone to war with only one heavily armored division, the 3rd Infantry.
"The original plan was to have two full armored divisions," said retired Maj. Gen. Bob Scales, former commandant of the Army War College and author of the official history of the 1991 Persian Gulf war. "What does it take to ensure dominance over time? The answer is one more armored division."
Scales said the forces already on the ground are doing a fine job and have gained much territory without suffering an undue number of casualties, but no commander would ever refuse more firepower.
"What you have to do to enemies like the Iraqis is you have to present an image of overwhelming force," he said. "They have to realize that it would be better to simply give up because even if they did well against the 3rd [Infantry] - and they haven't - because, well, look, you've got another division right behind them."
Which is why, Scales said, the war effort will be well served by the deployment of the 1st Cavalry, another heavily armored unit also based here in Fort Hood: "This is another increment. It's another wave."
For all the sentiment that the 4th Infantry to join the war, the eagerness here was tempered by a sense that, as the saying goes, you should be careful of what you wish for.
"I wish I'd been over there the time we were supposed to be over there, fighting side by side with my fellow soldiers," said Christopher Brown, a signal support systems specialist. "It's been too laid-back; there's been too much waiting."
He paused, cradled the baby niece who was part of a large contingency of his family that had attended the flag-casing ceremony with him. He's spent the time of the delayed deployment just thinking.
"I've been trying to do my best to get in the right frame of mind so that I won't have to worry when I'm over there," Brown said.
His biggest worry? "Not making it back alive."