Elite brigade is his to rev up

Lt. Col. Marc Ferraro leads the Guard’s only Stryker unit, which is based in Pa.

Posted: August 01, 2007

Lt. Col. Marc Ferraro was 6,000 miles from Iraq when six national guardsmen from Pennsylvania were killed by bomb blasts during a four-day period in August 2005.

It fell to him, as commander of their home battalion, to notify most of the soldiers' families.

He recalls it as the most trying period of his life, except for the two times his younger son had to undergo surgery as an infant.

"It was brutal," he says.

Ferraro, today, holds one of the most important jobs anywhere in the National Guard.

At 42, he is commander of one of the Army's seven new Stryker brigades - the only one of the seven under a Guard division.

Unless the Iraq war changes dramatically, his 56th Stryker Brigade, based in Northeast Philadelphia, is virtually certain to be sent to the war zone after it finishes its initial round of training late next year.

Ferraro, of Cherry Hill, whose own sons aren't old enough to be soldiers, said he could promise the 4,000 Pennsylvania guardsmen under his command two things: They will be well-prepared. And with 330 of the 19-ton, eight-wheeled Strykers, they will have the fastest, most high-tech and "most-survivable" armored troop carriers in the military.

"I am confident that we would be going into theater with the best equipment the Army has to offer," he said Monday afternoon.

Ferraro, a career guardsman, said he was well aware of questions that had been raised about the vulnerability of Strykers. The Associated Press reported in May that the Army already was looking for something different that could survive big roadside bombs - the main threat to troops in Iraq - meaning that the Stryker's status as the Army's "next generation" vehicle may be short-lived.

Official reports on the numbers of Strykers destroyed or damaged were classified, an Army official at the Pentagon said yesterday.

"Any vehicle can be destroyed," Ferraro said, "but comparatively speaking, if I was going into Iraq in any vehicle, I'd want to go in one of these."

He spoke from the back lot of the Guard armory at Roosevelt Boulevard and Southampton Road, where a few of the green, ungainly-looking Strykers - costing $2.2 million each - were lined up.

Later, in the windowless, fortresslike armory building, he slumped on an office couch with one desert boot draped over a knee as he talked in an interview.

Compact and 5-foot-8, he wore the Army's new camouflage uniform, which bears a digitally designed pattern that makes it hard to see at a distance or in low light.

The black oak leaf on the soft cap he wore will soon be replaced by the spread eagle of a full colonel, the rank befitting a brigade commander.

The Pennsylvania Army Guard, with about 15,000 soldiers, has three other brigades that won't get Strykers. These are equipped with tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles or helicopters.

His brigade - and the bulk of his Strykers - are scattered among 39 armories across Pennsylvania.

It was partly the political muscle of U.S. Rep. John Murtha, a Johnstown Democrat who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, that brought the one Guard Stryker brigade to Pennsylvania.

And it was partly internal state politics that dictated that the new vehicles - and $1.5 billion in Pentagon spending for the brigade - be spread from Philadelphia to Erie in the brigade's existing armories.

During the fall, next year, the brigade will complete 35 days of training at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La.

After that, Ferraro said, it will be ready for Iraq.

"The political climate will dictate where we go and what we do," he said. ". . . I don't think there's doubt in anyone's mind that we are going to deploy. It's a question of when, not if."

Ferraro has never been to the Middle East, let alone Iraq. He saw combat as an MP during the 1989 invasion of Panama. He also helped keep peace in Kosovo and clean up after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

He signed up with the Army Reserve while at Bishop Eustace Preparatory School in Cherry Hill. He did part of his basic training after his junior year and finished it after graduation.

At 19, he was a drill instructor at Fort Dix - so young-looking, he said, that the sergeants nicknamed him "Baby D."

"People said, 'You should be an officer.' My parents said, 'You should be an officer.' So I went to Widener College and became an officer."

Some notable Army officers have been enlisted men, among them retired four-star Gen. Tommy Franks, who led the successful U.S. invasion of Iraq.

"I think it gives you an advantage," Ferraro said. "As you lead those soldiers, you have an understanding of what they're going through. You've done it."

Ferraro took command of the First Battalion of the 111th Infantry, headquartered at Plymouth Meeting, soon after it was ordered to prepare one infantry company of about 130 men to go to Iraq for a year.

It was from that unit - Alpha Company - that Spec. Kurt E. Krout and Sgt. Brahim J. Jeffcoat were killed by a roadside bomb on Aug. 6, 2005.

On Aug. 9, a massive blast killed four other Alpha soldiers: Pfc. Nathaniel DeTample, Spec. John Kulick, Cpl. Gennaro Pellegrini and Sgt. Francis Straub Jr.

"I wasn't there," Ferraro said. "I don't know what happened." But he understands, he said, that it was the work of insurgents.

The men were in armored humvees. But no vehicle - not a Stryker, not a tank - would have saved them, Ferraro said.

"Those blasts," he said, "would have penetrated any vehicle."


Contact staff writer Tom Infield at 610-313-8205 or tinfield@phillynews.com

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