For Troops, a Desert of Surprises

Soldiers are learning to cope with heat, cold, sand, and fog

EVENING is falling on a United States Army camp deep in the desert. Soldiers sprawl lazily next to their rifles, offering comment on the volleyball game under way next to the chaplain's tent. Capt. Patrick Lyon, late of Kittery, Maine, kicks an errant ball back toward the players, then surveys his tent city and the horizon of sand beyond. ``I never thought I'd be in Saudi Arabia,'' he says. He pauses, thoughtfully. ``I never thought I'd see fog in Saudi Arabia, either.''

Fog? Here?

``I'm from Maine,'' he insists. ``I know what fog looks like.''

For hundreds of thousands of American military personnel, deployment here as part of operation Desert Shield has been perhaps the most unexpected, exciting, and unsettling event of their lives. In camps like this one all across the vast eastern province of Saudi Arabia, US troops are struggling about their daily jobs in a harsh environment, with little relaxation and the threat of war over their heads.

In his quick Thanksgiving visit to Saudi Arabia last week, President Bush stood in front of a carefully arranged backdrop of military aircraft and paid tribute to the US men and women here. ``This year,'' he said, ``your country gives thanks to you.'' His words were well received, but many US personnel say they got no special boost from the presidential visit. Instead their attitudes reflect cynical humor, wary confidence, and a desire to get on with the job.

The president ``could have saved the taxpayers some money and stayed home,'' says Air Force Staff Sgt. Everett Miller, standing on the tarmac of a military flightline here. ``I know we've got to play out the chess game first. But if it's time to do it, let's do it'' (US-Syria alliance seen as victory for Assad, page 4).

For the US troops Saudi Arabia has turned out to be a country of constant surprises. They've learned to deal with camels in their camps, scorpions in their shoes, and sand so fine the whole country seems buried in baby powder. And just as soon as they adapted to the brutal heat here, the weather threw something else their way - cold.

The fog Captain Lyon complained about was real. With November have come scattered clouds, some morning moisture, and night temperatures that are uncomfortable for units outfitted for hot weather.

Marine Lance Cpl. Richard Biggers's regiment is based far forward in the desert, near the border with Kuwait. At their forward position men sleep in the open, and ``everybody's started to complain about the cold,'' he says.

The change in seasons has some advantages, though. Corporal Biggers says he and his fellows can now play football during the day to break up the boredom. At their rear camp they're starting to get luxuries, such as Kentucky fried chicken trucked in by an enterprising local merchant. This is a welcome break from plastic-bagged MREs (meals ready to eat) which they've been roasting over brush fires to make more palatable.

``We'll probably run out of brush pretty soon,'' he says morosely.

Biggers is waiting at a rear base for a plane to fly him home on emergency leave. His wife gave birth two days after he left. Before he left camp his unit had switched to training useful for going on the offensive. ``We're concentrating more on getting used to working with our legs'' for forward movement, he says. He doesn't know when fighting will start, or if he'll be back in time to take part. ``Our commander tells us not to speculate about it,'' he says.

Many of the US service personnel here don't have time to speculate about anything. They're busy working 15-hour days on a military deployment of unprecedented scale. With hundreds of thousands of troops in the region, and more than 100,000 more on the way, the extent of the military presence here has to be seen to be believed.

There are paper-work management commands bivoucked in car dealerships, military antennas poking up from disused construction sites, and female MPs toting M-16s through the hotels. At times huge C-5 cargo planes rain from the sky, while there appear to already be enough pallets of cargo on the ground to rebuild the great pyramid of Giza.

One C-5 crew member, Air Force Technical Sgt. Keith Boughner, says that since the deployment started he's twice been grounded after reaching the regulation limit of 150 flying hours for a month. He had never reached the limit once before in his Air Force career.

Late November was a particularly trying time for Sergeant Boughner. ``Not only did I miss Thanksgiving, today's my daughter's birthday,'' he says.

At Captain Lyon's transportation unit, heavy long-bed trucks have run up more than 100,000 miles in the last 30 days. That's more than four times their typical peacetime pace.

At first, heat was a problem for Lyon's troops. Then a mysterious illness swept through camp. With the onset of cooler weather a problem now is lack of heated water for their wooden box showers.

Mechanics are changing truck filters and oil more often to combat the country's fine dust. Strangely, Saudi fuel is hurting their engines because it's too high quality. Instead of diesel, the US trucks are burning ``avgas'' - a super premium grade. It burns so well it cleans out all truck engine sludge. ``That causes our seals to dry out,'' Lyon says.

The chaplain's tent behind Lyon appears well-stocked with entertainment items. There are boxes of heavily used paperback books, and piles of generic mail addressed ``to any soldier.'' The volleyball game continues on its raucous course.

``Keep 'em busy, they're happy,'' says Lyon. Out in the desert, the sun sits like a red ball on the horizon as another day of waiting in Saudi Arabia nears an end.

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