US Troops Watch, Wait In Kuwait

Rapid deployment against Iraq worked. But when 35,800 Americans can head home is as ephemeral as the desert wind.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Some things remind American soldiers in Kuwait they are on the "front line" facing Iraq. Almost all of them have been vaccinated for the biological agent anthrax, and a field chaplain closes a staff meeting with the prayer "We ask for Your protection and guidance. Amen."

But the same meeting, held in a green tent on a wind-swept patch of desert turned into an armored battalion base, illustrates how far away seems the February crisis, when military action against Iraq seemed inevitable.

As the Pentagon and the White House wrestle with the questions of if, when, and how to begin pulling troops out of the Persian Gulf, soldiers on the ground have eased into a daily routine and look toward going home.

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Some 35,800 American troops are in the region now, double the usual number. Most are kept in a difficult-to-sustain high state of alert. Yesterday, a group of US senators back from a fact-finding trip to the region said they found the state of the troops' morale to be extremely low. The White House says President Clinton will decide whether to reduce forces soon. Yesterday a senior US military source said the USS Independence, one of two US aircraft carriers in the region, would be rotated out in late May but would be replaced within three weeks of that date.

So far, these troops have not been asked to go to war. But they have already accomplished one significant mission. Senior commanders say that the speed with which troops moved from American bases to positions in the Kuwaiti desert in February has been unprecedented. They say that success has validated the Pentagon's plan to pre-positioning military equipment in the Persian Gulf.

But on the ground, such mega-issues aren't the first thing on soldiers' minds. Anything to boost morale is. Field commanders hear reports about the upcoming barbeque night, the makeshift softball league, and the need for more fire extinguishers in the primitive toilets. Night-fishing trips are under way, and a five-day work week is taking shape.

Keeping up momentum

On the 76th day of the deployment Tuesday, the 3-69th Armored Battalion commander, Lt. Col. Mike Altomare, spoke to his officers about safety. There were too many speeding vehicles around camp, he warned, and not wearing seat belts "continues to be a problem."

Considering the energy-charged circumstances into which these troops arrived - expecting combat within days of rushing to the Middle East from the United States - keeping the momentum is now a top priority.

"It's been a challenge to keep the soldiers focused," says Colonel Altomare. "But the reason we are here is because the guy up north [Iraqi President Saddam Hussein] was messing around, and there is no reason to think he won't do it again."

Some soldiers speak almost wistfully about Feb. 23, when "peace broke out" as United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan made a deal with the Iraqi leader to allow the UN to continue inspecting sites inside Iraq.

To keep rumors of imminent departure in check, Altomare gathers all his hundreds of soldiers together every 10 days and tells them all that he knows about going home. So far, that hasn't been much.

The departure from the United States was emotionally charged, he says, because of threats of war from both Washington and Baghdad.

"It is the first time in 19 years of service," Altomare says, "[that] my wife cried when I left."

"There is always a feeling of adrenaline upon arrival, because it looks like there will be military action," says US Army Maj. Gen. Robert Ivany, deputy coalition task force commander in Kuwait. "The provocative noise out of Iraq has gone down, but there is a degree of unpredictability to keep in mind."

Though soldiers can't wait to leave their hot desert encampments, he says, "they understand that the first American on a plane [home] is a signal to the world."

The other signal to the world from this emergency deployment, however, showed itself in the buildup to the February crisis.

For years, American commanders have had to negotiate the political minefields of the Gulf as they kept a force of some 20,000 troops in the region to enforce the US policy of "dual containment" of Iraq and Iran and to protect oil-rich allies such as Saudi Arabia.

Despite expressing official gratitude for the support, some of these allies also must contend with an Arab perception that American troops are here to stay and that they may prove disruptive.

Tiny Kuwait, bordering its much more powerful neighbor Iraq to the north, has been the most open to American forces. The US-led Gulf War coalition ousted invading Iraqi troops from Kuwait in February 1991.

But elsewhere, relations are trickier. Saudi Arabia hosts a large US Air Force presence south of Riyadh, the capital. But those planes were denied permission to launch against Iraq during the last few crises. US pilots at Turkey's Incirlik air base were slapped with similar restrictions.

'Everything went quickly'

So to get around those hurdles, Washington sent an armada of warships to boost the Navy's Fifth Fleet, headquartered in Bahrain.

Key elements of the rapid deployment were pre-positioned tanks and armored vehicles in Kuwait and Qatar. "We're very proud of this," General Ivany says. "We've got the system down: You land, go to your tank, get your ammo, and in six hours you are in the desert."

"At first I thought they were kidding when they said six hours," says Pvt. Domingo Campos of San Francisco, a crewman on a Bradley fighting vehicle. "But then it happened - everything went very quickly."

The base used by American troops at Camp Doha, just west of Kuwait CIty, in peacetime is tightly packed like a parking lot with armored vehicles. But today most of the hardware is deployed in border areas with Iraq, and the empty lots of Camp Doha give it the air of a ghost town.

Pleased as the top brass may be with the speed of the deployment, maintaining morale when the enemy sinks below the horizon is not easy.

"Our biggest problem now is to keep these guys fired up, to fight boredom," says Sgt. Maj. Roger Roley as the strong desert wind tears at the canvas tent flaps.

"Anything we can do to keep their minds off home, we do it. We've been successful so far - there's been no uprising yet," he says.

The troops have taken advantage of the wide-open desert for large-scale training exercises that would be almost impossible at home. Officers also say that integrated training between the Army, Air Force, and Marines is much easier to carry out here.

The 3rd Infantry Division from Fort Stewart, Ga., makes up roughly 6,000 of the 10,000 or so American troops in Kuwait. It was due for a session at the National Training Center (NTC) in California in March, where units are put through all their paces and graded.

Because they were deployed, however, commanders persuaded 38 "observer controllers" from the NTC to come to Kuwait and replicate the training course.

Simulations, live-fire exercises, and war games with coalition partners, mostly Kuwaiti units, have also been conducted.

But the desert has particular requirements. "When you shoot at a US installation, it is all fenced and controlled," says Maj. Russ Oaks, a public-affairs officer with the 3rd Infantry.

"But here there are Bedouins and herders. We have to check areas with helicopters first and stop firing if someone wanders into range."

Leave at a shopping mall

Units have made their surroundings more comfortable as time has passed.

And Kuwaiti officials have come to the Americans and offered to provide some relief from the desert. Keeping a discreet profile in civilian clothes, and in small numbers, American soldiers have experienced a taste of daily life in Kuwait through traditional gatherings called diwaniyas, sporting and cultural events, and shopping.

"The malls were the biggest surprise," says Spc. Jennifer Kelly of West Des Moines, Iowa, part of a Patriot antimissile battery. "They are so advanced - better than ours."

But the 40,000 sandbags have long been filled at this desert fire base - forming a four-mile perimeter of sand berms - and the threat has decreased.

Today the most important moment of the day is the mail run - not the Scud missile alarm tests that send troops to their bunkers and vehicles with their gas masks.

Now there is time to consider that radio forgotten in February, when in the rush of the crisis it "didn't seem that important," says Spc. Jeffrey Benoit of Wayne, Maine, a tank crewman.

"It's not difficult to keep alert, because if Iraq did something stupid, we all have itchy trigger fingers," crewman Benoit says.

"But at the back of our minds we know family and friends are waiting."

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