Diary of a Saudi Sojourn

Visiting troops in the Middle East, a woman gets a taste of the desert - and the tension

Nov. 17, 1990 THE journey started months ago - the call from my editor, my first life insurance policy, and the wait. Then tunnel vision, not looking to the right or the left, focusing only on my need for adventure and not my need for safety. It isn't duty. It's a choice. But when my editor asked me, I knew I needed to go. What will save me, since duty can't, from this sense that I am abandoning my children and husband for a high-risk assignment in Saudi Arabia?

A glimpse of what it must feel like for the men and women en route to the desert.

Nov. 21, 1990

I told my older brother I was asked to go to Saudi. He responded: ``You got married too young.'' I wonder if it would be different if I were a man. My husband is quiet, reticent, but he knows who I am; he knows for me safety can also be dangerous.

Nov. 27, 1990

I dream every night now about being there. It consumes me. It censors fear. Waiting has its own power either to build up emotional defenses or to erode any sense of urgency or purpose. If it's this way for me, what is it like for the men and women in the desert or waiting to be called?

Nov. 28, 1990

Finally received word I will be leaving with the military on or around the 30th. What is this longing inside to go? I am only connected to the people in Operation Desert Shield through sound bites and news blurbs, through Ted Koppel discussions and newsprint, flashing pictures and imagined emotions. I see bodies folded and arranged in created shade. The only thing that matches the desert sand is skin.

Nov. 29, 1990

My 8-year-old child asked me today if the mother in me wants to go.

I pack a few days supply of food and clothing. I pack my sense of immunity from death and harm. Waiting creates seams in my argument to stay focused on what I have decided to do. I keep a journal to stay clarified; hoping the purpose itself will emit its own energy.

It's safe seeing everything in a still-life photograph or an 18-inch TV screen. No peripheral vision.

Nov. 30, 1990

I leave for McGuire Air Force Base early this morning after short goodbyes. I promise my children I'll be back in a week, but I wonder as I shut the door of my house if I'm lying.

9:50 a.m. I arrive at the base and meet my travel companions: photographers John Giordano and Antony Platt, both of whom I'm sure are far more successful than I and who know exactly what they're doing. They're used to fear, according to their exchange of war stories; John is a Vietnam vet and Antony an ex-British paratrooper.

I am lured on by a need for adventure and accomplishment. Tunnel vision, I tell myself. I suspect this little unit, including our military escort, Master Sargeant Pat Samuelson, will reflect some of the dynamics of platoon life since we will sleep, eat, and travel together for the next several days.

Pat is a couple of years younger than I, in her early 30s. She's wearing a flightsuit, freshly shined combat boots, and Cub Scout hat. John is in his early 40s; I wonder if it's the sight of uniforms that trigger his stories. He has three cameras looped around his neck. On Antony's sweater there's a paratrooper patch and a maroon beret in his cargo pant pocket.

6:45 p.m. We board a KC-10 (what some guys on base call a sissy plane since it has real airliner seats) along with 15 tons of mail and Ranger troops who board at the last minute wearing desert camouflage uniforms and carrying rifles on their shoulders. I try to read their faces - so clear and young. They don't smile or frown. They place their helmets under their seats and close their eyes for the long flight.

Dec. 1, 1990

I watch sunrise over the Portugal coast and as tired as I am, the sun startles, makes me feel awake, energetic, even though we've now passed through three time zones. We are flying at 500 m.p.h. and I stand here behind the pilot and navigator in the flight deck.

We land at Rota Air Force Base to 39 degrees and a hard wind through palm trees. I eat an egg sandwich for breakfast and drink coffee from a mildewy smelling waxy cup. I overhear one GI saying to another, ``Every war has its advantages.'' What? I ask myself, but I have no answer.

8:34 p.m. The desert is well lit. No edges to this picture of endless sand barely hidden by dark. I watch our landing from the flight deck, see tire tracks in the sand that has dusted the runway.

I heard actress Victoria Tennant say the desert is like the bone structure of a woman's face. I think, an ever changing woman, constantly resculptured.

THE air is dry and warm. We are greeted by Master Sergeant Doug Kincard and are offered ice cream bars before we are driven to a hangar that warehouses equipment and cots and sleeping men. In one corner a mini store is set up to sell T-shirts, otherwise known as morale boosters. I buy one - a map of Saudi Arabia with red dots each with the name Somewhere, Somewhere Else, Someplace. The back reads: ``I don't know where hell is, but I can see it from here.'' Humor in the Arabian desert is a matter of survival.

I talk with Sergeant Tim Riley, a medical corpsman who is on his way home. He says he is confident of the troops' preparedness for desert warfare but he adds, ``Those who are eager for this war are those who have never lived through one.'' He tells me he's a Vietnam vet and enlisting in the National Guard three years ago was part of his postwar healing process.

Dec. 2, 1990

We eat breakfast by American music and I watch for signs of Arabia other than in the geometric designs on the rugs and walls. I haven't yet seen a Saudi woman.

We step onto the flight line - the area where planes land, take off, and are parked - about 9:00 a.m. Within moments, our military escort ushers us back into the van and off the base. Iraq had just launched several missiles rumored to be heading for Israel. It was the first ever ``yellow alert'' issued for all of Southwest Asia and Europe. (The definition of yellow alert is classified, but it indicates an increased level of readiness and security.)

The British fighter pilots are lining up on the flight line wearing chemical warfare gear. I find myself sitting closer to John and Antony. For me, one thought predominates: I'm leaving my children motherless. I envision them sitting in front of the TV watching cartoons when this news flash crawls across the screen. I feel their fear. I hate myself for feeling safe enough to have come.

We arrive at the Joint Information Bu- reau set up in a luxurious hotel a few miles from the base. Inside, a calm. I realize that no one knows yet about the missile launch. Reporters are watching Saturday Night Live. I'm sick to my stomach.

Sargeant Samuelson is told to keep her bag of chemical gear with her, then ``Go to the restaurant near the basement. Have some coffee.'' Time and Newsweek reporters come in for a 10 o'clock breakfast. Finally one Saudi woman walks by wearing a black veil over her entire face. The Saudi men have eyes as dark as their women's veils.

The restaurant is a stage. We are acting our fearless, undistracted roles. I am aware of my unusual silence, my scribbled words on paper; my handwriting doesn't look familiar.

An hour later, the alert clears. We head back to the base. I read the autographed sandbags that form a bunker - one says ``keep the faith,'' another, ``come home.'' There's a massive array of machinery, the glaring sun. No shade. And the roar of F-16s taking off, two at a time, at two-minute intervals.

I FIND an airman and confess what was my first thought after I heard of the Iraqi missile launch. I wait for him to confess his.

I feel connected to them by the fear of death. Some expressed disappointment; they had waited long enough for war. Others seem bolstered by it, since the missiles had misfired. The Pentagon said it was just a test fire. The men thought the alert was the beginning. I thought it was the end.

As I talk to the men, I am aware of how I'm afraid to read their names, to remember them. When I ask questions, I am aware of my whole body leaning into their words.

Most of the men, I notice, smoke incessantly. Their lips are white and cracked. They talk of Operation Desert Shield as the ``Beach Party.'' I wonder what these men dream at night. If sand gets inside their night visions. I do not ask.

I've got desert in my eyes, ears, skin and clothes.

That night, my assignment completed, we board a C-141 military aircraft en route to Torre Bonn, Spain. Now I feel that same sense of abandonment leaving these comrades as I did when I left my family. The plane is so loud no one talks. I don't want to read or focus on anything else but my collection of emotions and memories. I'm afraid to unpack them, to forget the smaller pictures - the smile, the face, the letters in the sand - composing the larger one. Peripheral vision.

I took a risk beyond the borders of my own life. I had penetrated Operation Desert Shield and my own ``shield'' of safety. One battle of many before me.

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