173rd and Operation Northern Delay – March 26, 2003

173rd Airborne Operation

by Maj. Robyn Haake.

On March 26, 2003, during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, 1,000 paratroopers or “Sky Soldiers” from the 173rd Airborne Brigade jumped into Bashur, Iraq as part of Operation Northern Delay. 20 years later, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment “The Rock” commemorated the anniversary of this combat jump by inviting Army and Air Force veterans of the mission to return and drop together again on March 22, 2023 in Aviano, Italy.

Operation Northern Delay was the last large-scale combat parachute operation conducted by the U.S. military since Operation Just Cause in 1989. The operation was the first strategic brigade airdrop using C-17 aircraft in formation, integrating a conventional Army airborne brigade within the 10th Special Forces Group, and integrating an armored battalion into an airborne operation. The 62d Airlift Wing, 315th Airlift Wing, 437th Airlift Wing, and 446th Airlift Wing provided aircraft and crew to fly the mission.

On the night of the jump, the airfield was a mud pit. The veteran jumpers don’t call the combat star on their jump wings a “mustard stain,” they call it a “mud stain.” Many Sky Soldiers could not perform their parachute landing fall when they made contact with the ground due to being stuck in waist-deep mud.

The airborne assault seized a foothold for the rest of the brigade and follow-on forces, including an armored battalion task force. The 173rd’s introduction to the northern front in Operation Iraqi Freedom was an important step in the evolution of joint forcible entry (JFE), special operations interoperability, and airborne-armored force integration.

Two decades later, most of the veterans of the mission have left the military, but some are still serving and returned to Aviano Air Base to tell their story to the current generation of Sky Soldiers and airmen. To help commemorate the 20th anniversary of the jump, the 446th Airlift Wing came all the way to Italy from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. to exit Sky Soldiers once again. Chief Master Sgt. Derek Bryant was on one of the aircrews for Northern Delay.

“20 years ago, we came to Aviano and you could really see the seriousness in people’s faces, you could see the intensity that was building. It means a lot to me to come back. I was really looking forward to seeing if I had any jumpers from 20 years ago and there was one. It was really cool.”

Chief Master Sgt. Derek Bryant, 446th Airlift Wing

The jumper that he reunited with is 1st Sgt. Travis Stoddard, who is the current 1st Sgt., or senior enlisted member, of Bull Battery, 4th Battalion, 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment, the 173rd’s organic artillery unit. Stoddard made the combat jump as a forward observer for one of the infantry units.

“We were rigged heavy that night. Once we stood up and hooked up, all I could think about was, ‘I’m ready to go. I’m ready to jump and get this gear off,”’ said Stoddard.

Among the returning veterans was Col. John Spencer, who was a 2nd lt. and platoon leader during the jump. On March 22, the parachute rigging area at Aviano was filled with junior and senior Sky Soldiers assigned to “The Rock,” ready to jump and assemble fast, as their ancestors did in Bashur 20 years ago.

Col. Spencer helped set the mood for a combat-equipment jump by speaking to all of jumpers and reminded them why they train as hard as they do.

”That night when we jumped into Iraq, we landed in knee-deep mud, not only that but we all had 120 pounds on our backs. We do this over and over again so when you guys are tested, you’ll succeed. The 173rd holds a special place in the military because you are asked to do a lot. In this case, we were asked to hold off an Iraqi mechanized division with two battalions of light infantry and we said, “hooah!” and we did it.”

Col. John Spencer, member of 173rd during Operation Northern Delay

Later that day, the sunny Italian sky was filled with Sky Soldiers descending onto their drop zone with full combat equipment. Just as those who came before them did, the paratroopers landed, packed the heavy weight on their backs hustled to the assembly area for their next objective.

On the following day, the 173rd held a ceremony at their headquarters in Vicenza that praised the bravery and intense efforts to accomplish the mission of opening up a northern front in Iraq. During the ceremony, Lt. Col. Kevin Ward, the battalion commander for 2nd Battalion, 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment recognized ten combat jumpers and one army civilian (a unit movement coordinator) who returned to the 173rd to meet with brigade leadership and tell their stories to the current generation of paratroopers.

The 173rd Airborne Brigade is the U.S. Army’s Contingency Response Force in Europe, providing rapidly deployable forces to the United States European, Africa and Central Command areas of responsibility. Forward deployed across Italy and Germany, the brigade routinely trains alongside NATO allies and partners to build partnerships and strengthen the alliance.


Historical Note: Twenty years ago the 173rd parachuted into northern Iraq with the aim to reinforce a second front established by US Special Forces, CIA officers in northern Iraq, and the Peshmerga. Operation Northern Delay occurred on 26 March 2003 as part of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It involved dropping 1,000 paratroopers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade into Northern Iraq. It was the last large-scale combat parachute operation conducted by the U.S. military since Operation Just Cause.

Author: This story by Maj. Robyn Haake, 173rd Airborne Brigade, is about the 20-year anniversary parachute jump commemorating that event during the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). The article was first published on March 24, 2023 by the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service. DVIDS content is in the public domain.

Photo: U.S. Army paratroopers assigned to 2nd Battalion, 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade conduct an airborne operation in commemoration of the 20th anniversary of Operation Northern Delay at Aviano Air Base, Italy on March 22, 2023. Photo by Spc. Alisha Grezlik.