At a US Base in Saudi, Pizza and Preparedness
PRINCE SULTAN AIR BASE, SAUDI ARABIA — The memory of the Khobar Towers bombing still lingers among American troops in Saudi Arabia, its most obvious daily effect being one of the tightest security plans devised for United States forces overseas.
On June 25, 1996, a truck bomb killed 19 American servicemen when it was detonated in front of a housing complex in Dhahran, eastern Saudi Arabia. Since then, the US Air Force has moved lock, stock, and barrel to this remote base 80 miles south of the capital, Riyadh.
"Everything in my tent came from Khobar, and it's all marked up," says F-16 fighter pilot Capt. Randy Redell of Westlake, Calif.
"We ask ourselves: Are they old, or is it from the blast? The mirror is broken down the side with a very jagged edge," he says.
Even the coffee table in the tent quarters of Brig. Gen. Bentley Rayburn, 4044th Wing Commander, has a plaque noting the source of its damage.
"The best thing is that we are now in the middle of this enormous Saudi base," says General Rayburn. "But Khobar is kept in front of us. People have learned how to break into Fort Knox, so we don't let up our vigilance here."
Part of the "force protection" mantra means a life of confinement to base for those who are not flying. Even for pilots, contact with Saudi "culture" is often limited to radio banter with air-traffic controllers.
The Air Force has been creative in making the humdrum day not only bearable, however, but sometimes pleasant. Many say that they expected to find something akin to a bare cot set in Death Valley.
American culture, to go
Imagine their surprise to find Death Valley - sure enough - but one decked out with many familiar amenities: Baskin Robbins ice cream, a Pizza Inn shop, and a pre-fab Burger King.
Still, not far from this "mall" of shops stands a stone memorial for the Khobar victims. "Their sacrifice shall blaze as a flame in our hearts," it reads.
Several tents away, a two-seat bench has been made into a swing. The sign is painted: "Attitude adjustments for free."
"Saudi doesn't look too different [from the US], other than it is flat with a lot of sand," says Airman Kim Sanchez of Langley, Va. "I'd never know I was in a different country."
The only other clues are tough security regulations. She is escorting 11 foreign building workers on to the base, and it took 4-1/2 hours to clear them. As a newcomer here, she thought at first that the Indian and Sri Lankan workers were Saudis.
Just as Air Force bases were renowned during the Vietnam era for their livability - especially compared with Army bases - so, too, standards here are high.
Tents are air-conditioned, there are several swimming pools, and one unit peddles snow cones. The number of activities designed to occupy free hours overwhelms.
Behaving as guests
But some adjustments are required, and senior officers with previous Middle East experience say they hinge on remembering this fact: Know who is the guest, and who is the host.
"I get to talk to a lot of Saudi military people," says Staff Sgt. Jeffery Martin from Bradford, Ohio. "I realize I am in their house and try to accommodate. The majority of us try real hard to do that, to treat our hosts with respect."
For women, the task is harder. For those few who do come in public contact with Saudis, the Air Force issues black shrouds, called abayas, that are required wear for Saudi women.
Senior Airman Michele Vetterick, from Gainesville, Fla., says she has trained while wearing an abaya. As a security specialist, she has also interacted with Saudi officers while wearing her normal camouflage uniform.
"I try to maintain respect," she says. "If there is a problem, and the chance that a male [soldier] can take over, I would step aside in a minute, if that's what it takes to do a good job and to abide by their customs."
The abaya, she adds, is "just like another uniform."
Gulf War lessons
More than 4,000 Americans are deployed at this base, most living in a "Tent City" that was first established during the 1990-1991 Gulf War. It lay vacant for years, but now bustles.
Commanders say that with strict rules - no alcoholic drinks or mixing of the sexes in tent accommodations - there are no discipline problems.
Compared with the Gulf War, there are also other changes.
"There was a lot of soul-searching for people during the Gulf War, because most of us hadn't seen war," says Maj. Joshua Jose of Newark, Calif., navigator of a C-130 transport plane.
"Now we know the threat and are confident about what is going on," he says.
Other pilots report the surprised reaction of friends at home when they told them they were posted to Saudi Arabia to patrol over Iraq.
"What?" fighter pilot Capt. Ross Anderson, from Portland, Ore., remembers being asked. "You mean we are still over there?"