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Four paratroopers died and more than 100 were injured,...

By TERRANCE W. MCGARRY

FORT IRWIN, Calif. -- Four paratroopers died and more than 100 were injured, 20 seriously,in a massive training exercise Tuesday in the Southern California desert, the biggest military airdrop since World War II.

The operation, 'Gallant Eagle 82,' involved nearly 3,000 paratroopers of the famed 82nd Airborne Division from Fort Bragg, N.C., and 90 Air Force cargo planes.

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Officials said the training exercise was nearly canceled because of high winds, but maintained conditions were safe when the troops jumped at 6 a.m. PST.

Army Lt. Gen. Robert Kingston, commander of the Rapid Deployment Force, said two soldiers died because their parachutes did not open and one was killed when he landed on a piece of heavy equipment.

The fourth victim was killed or seriously injured on impact, then was dragged a distance by his chute.

'This is why airborne soldiers get intensive training with frequent parachute jumps,' he said. 'Paratroopers get hazardous duty pay because it is hazardous duty -- otherwise the Army wouldn't pay them hazardous duty pay.'

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An Army spokesman the normal injury rate in airborne exercises is about 1 percent.

The names of the victims were withheld pending notification of next of kin.

'Over 100 troopers turned themselves into the dispensary in the field,' Kingston said. 'But everyone who thinks he was injured or thinks he was not well was encouraged to turn himself in.'

He said more than 80 of the 100 injured were returned to the exercise.

More than 40,000 troops from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines are participating in the month-long maneuvers at the desert base to test the Rapid Deployment Force in command, communications, intelligence collection and tactical deployment.

Only units of the 82nd Airborne were involved in Tuesday's massive jump. Other elements of the division are part of the Egyptian-Israeli peace-keeping force in the Middle East.

Air Force Lt. Col Neil Buttimer said 'there was concern they were going to cancel the drop because of wind, but the wind dropped down. In general terms, it was windy at the time of the drop.

'As near as we know, the winds were within acceptable limits.'

Buttimer denied reports the wind was gusting to 40 mph at the time of the drop.

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Army Lt. Col David Burpee said winds of more than 13 knots on the ground -- about 15 mph -- would have forced cancellation of the jumps at the five sites. He said readings one minute before the paratroopers jumped were 10 knots or less.

Six injured troopers were taken to Loma Linda University Medical Center where three were listed in critical condition with head injuries: Federico Fernandez, 37; Rick Holland, 21, and Greg Watson, 24. In fair condition with fractures and internal injures were James Davis, 19; Daniel Maynard, 24, and Melvin Balach. No ranks or hometowns were available.

Another soldier with serious head injuries was airlifted to the Long Beach Naval Hospital, then transferred by ambulance to the Long Beach Veterans Administration Hospital's neurosurgery unit, officials said.

The drop of personnel and equipment was held at Fort Irwin, in the Mojave Desert about 120 miles northeast of Los Angeles. Other drop sites were on the huge Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms, Calif.

Besides the troops from Fort Bragg, 266 tons of combat equipment aboard 30 C-130 aircraft and 60 C-141 planes was used. The operation was coordinated by the 22nd Air Force headquarters at Travis Air Force Base outside Sacramento, Calif.

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The Air Force said the C-141 aircraft picked up the troops at Pope Air Force Base, N.C., for the drop.

Two soldiers were killed in separate incidents at Fort Irwin earlier this year. An Army private was shot and killed last January when the armored personnel carrier he was in was mistaken for a target by other troops. Earlier this month, a soldier was killed when he was crushed between two armored vehicles.

Fort Irwin, which had been used for the previous nine years by the California National Guard, was reactived last July. The National Training Center normally offers visiting battalions live-fire exercises and force-on-force training that includes laser technology and stresses authenticity in war games.

In regular two-week exercises, 1,000 men chosen to represent Soviet soldiers function as the enemy in battles with visiting troops.

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