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Capturing the sound of war as U.S. forces charged for Baghdad

Soldiers of the U.S. Army 3rd Infantry Division secure a field near Najaf, Iraq, at sunrise on March 23, 2003.
John Moore
/
AP
Soldiers of the U.S. Army 3rd Infantry Division secure a field near Najaf, Iraq, at sunrise on March 23, 2003.

On March 20, 2003, I was embedded with the lead attack elements of the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division deployed along the Kuwait-Iraq border when a fierce artillery volley rang out. It was taking out Iraqi border posts and military units in the area. I remember the sustained barrage; the thuds echoing all around the desert.

Soldiers were anxious following an Iraqi Scud missile attack earlier. They were milling about in the desert and seemed tense when the American artillery barrage opened up. Then-Capt. Larry Burris, company commander of Charlie Rock attached to the 1-64th Armor Battalion, shouted to his soldiers: "That's the sound of freedom."

The Army units that would lead the 3rd Infantry Division's attack to Baghdad were about to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein's regime on the orders of President George W. Bush. The U.S. claimed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

I climbed into the back of Capt. Burris' Bradley fighting vehicle alongside the armored brigade's M1A1 Abrams tanks, Bradleys, armored personal carriers and Humvees that soon poured across the border into Iraq.

Operation Iraqi Freedom was underway.

The hard-fought 26-day U.S.-led attack successfully felled the dictator Saddam. The Army called it one the fastest and largest armored assaults in military history. In the public eye, however, it was soon eclipsed by a long and badly bungled U.S. occupation and decade-long military presence that spawned a tenacious insurgency. Over 4,500 Americans and nearly 200,000 Iraqis were killed in the war, according to Brown University's Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.

The invasion gave way to a vicious and bloody Shia-Sunni civil war and the growth of the jihadist terrorist group al-Qaida in Iraq. Later, the Islamic State terrorist network grew out of Iraq's sectarian chaos and it temporarily seized control over large swaths of both Iraq and Syria.

Iraq's so-called weapons of mass destruction were never found.

Listen to the full report by clicking or tapping the play button above.

Producers Danny Hajek and Jack Mitchell contributed to this report

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Westervelt
Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.