Monday, November 18, 2002

OTTAWA DAILY TIMES: Season in the Sand

KUWAIT CITY - Less than 50 miles from the border with Iraq, in a desert filled with choking dust, the U.S. military has dug in, ready for war.

Dotted throughout the northwest part of Kuwait are several remote camps filled with thousands of U.S. troops. The soldiers here call these camps “kabals,” an Arabic word that means fortress.

Most of the troops in these kabals are in the Army, deployed from the United States for six months at a time as part of a 1991 defense agreement with the Emirate of Kuwait. Even though American forces have been in this tiny Middle Eastern country for more than a decade, the threat of war in Iraq is shedding new light on their mission here.

Our two-week news gathering effort to the Persian Gulf starts here in Kuwait. We’re talking with and documenting the lives of these deployed soldiers on what could become the front line in a war with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. We’re also trying to get a feel for what it’s like to live under these conditions thousands of miles away from home during the holiday season.

Last Thanksgiving, they were in basic training, or at home with friends and family, or back at their home base. This year, they’re staring down a defiant Saddam Hussein just as weapons inspectors arrive in Baghdad to begin the job of searching for biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons.

War is not far from anyone’s mind here. One U.S Army public affairs officer, Captain Darryl Wright, reminds us that President Bush hasn’t yet made a decision about whether or not to strike. Even so, the training in the desert keeps these soldiers prepared for battle, on any front.

We land in Kuwait City just three days after a Kuwaiti policeman shot and wounded two American soldiers. Protection of the soldiers in this country has taken on renewed importance with the threat of global terrorism, and we drive from the city to the desert camps in a convoy to make sure we get to our destination without interference.

The trip out to the camps quickly turns from a cruise on the highway to an adventure in the desert. Paved roads end about halfway to the camps and the rest of the trip is on the open desert. Our U.S. Army Public Affairs escorts use Global Positioning Systems (GPS) to lead us through the sandy, desolate terrain. Our drive is not without incident. Attempting to scale a dune, our four-wheel drive Hyundai Galloper gets stuck in the sand. It takes creative thinking and some resourcefulness by the soldiers accompanying us to get us back on the “road” again. First we try digging around the tires, but in the end, we use flak vests as ramps to get up and out.

We spend our first day interviewing soldiers from Fort Stewart, Georgia participating in a live-fire exercise at the Udairi bombing range less than 25 miles from the border with Iraq. The exercise involves mobile Paladin Howitzers, Apache helicopters, and “fast-movers” (U.S. Air Force jet fighter / bombers). Talking with the soldiers during the exercise, we get a feel for how they see the world events happening around them. One soldier indicates he hears more from his wife back home about what’s happening in the world than he does in the desert, and that he’s prepared for anything that comes his way.

It’s a common feeling among the soldiers out here. The following day, at Camp Pennsylvania, we talk with Sgt. 1st Class Eric Olson. He’s an M1A1 Abrams tank commander with Alpha Company, First Brigade, 64th Armor Regiment. His platoon recently returned from a field exercise to get ready for Thanksgiving. He served as a tank driver during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, and the last time he saw Kuwait, 12 years ago, the country’s oil fields were on fire.

“I was curious to see what it would be like,” he says as he takes a puff on a cigarette. He has fond memories of the Gulf War, and remembers how grateful the Kuwaitis were to the U.S. soldiers for helping liberate their country.

We get to take a ride in a few of the tanks in his platoon. What sets it apart from other platoons are the words stenciled on the tube of each tank turret. The four tanks in his platoon bear the names of the planes hijacked on September 11th, 2001.

“We though it would be a great way to show some patriotism,” says Olson. Tradition dictates that words stenciled on the tubes have to start with the letter “A” because the platoon is from Alpha Company, but Olson’s commanding officers thought it was a great way to build morale among the troops. They gave the OK for the names of United Airlines Flights 93 and 175 to join American Airlines Flight 77 and 11 on the platoon’s tanks.

Like many soldiers in the field, Olson sees no difference between the War on Terrorism and a potential war with Iraq. When the hammer falls, Olsen says he wants his tank platoon to lead the charge “north.”

As journalists, covering these soldiers takes us away from home for part of the holiday season, too, but it’s not the same stress and hardship these soldiers face for months at a time. We fly in and armed escorts take us to the action, but after a few days we leave for the relative safety of a world that’s familiar to us.

Unlike us, soldiers get through a long deployment by learning how to take their minds off the distance between them and their families. Some say it’s not hard to keep focused here -- the uncertainty of war and constant training in the deserts of Kuwait does that for them.

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