Preparing for war

Heading off to a war zone is a sobering, yet giddy, experience.

Even for someone who never owned a G.I. Joe, I admit to a boyish thrill when I first shouldered the heft of a bulletproof jacket and listened to the metallic knock of a Kevlar helmet. Tools of the soldier's trade fascinate people of all ages.

But buying my protective gear was decidedly unromantic. Taking the advice of a colleague, I shopped at bulletproofme.com. According to the specifications of my helmet only about half of projectiles traveling at 655 miles per second will be stopped.

I have been given the Monitor's spare bulletproof vest. Picture a zip-up life preserver with less stuffing and an extra 10 pounds of weight. On the front and back are kangaroo-like pouches for the two ceramic plates, each about the size of a mousepad. Slip those in and you feel a hiker about to spend 5 months on the Appalachian Trail.

The first thing most people want to know is how my wife feels about this assignment. As a high school teacher of foreign languages, she brings in news articles from around the world to help give her students a global outlook. For her, this will be another teaching moment.

Details of my accommodations are sketchy. I know I will be stationed at an air base in Kuwait. A satellite phone will be my umbilical cord to Boston. It will give my laptop e-mail and Internet access. I could open up a Radio Shack franchise with all the other gear - a digital camera, a digital audio recorder, cords and adapters for every contingency, a shortwave radio, and an MP3 player.

Buried beneath everything I need to remember about which cord goes where on the sat phone and how to use a gas mask, lie my thoughts on this assignment.

Distant Kuwait has already changed my life. Twelve years ago when the elder George Bush drove Iraq from Kuwait, I was working as a paperboy in a small New Hampshire town.

One afternoon, as I knelt in the driveway to count the stack of 52 papers, I read that an Air Force pilot on a training mission in Saudi Arabia was killed in a crash. His name was Capt. Michael Chinburg, and he had grown up three doors down from me.

The only soldier I knew never came back.

His parents were subscribers. For years, I had parked my bike, walked up their front yard, folded the newspaper in half, and slipped it inside their storm door. But not that day. Cars lined the yard as if to defend the mourner's territory. I didn't dare trespass. I quickly crammed the paper in the mailbox and sped away on my bike.

The usual chatty neighbors greeted me along the route. Rather than small talk, I relayed what I had heard from other neighbors and listened to their reactions. Delivering the news took on new importance for me, and started me on the path to becoming a journalist.

The F-16 is among the planes flown by the 332nd, the same type Capt. Chinburg flew on his last mission. With the younger George Bush charging at Iraq again, I am that much closer to a similar story.

(Editor's note: csmonitor.com reporter Ben Arnoldy is on assignment in Kuwait as part of the Pentagon's program "embedding" journalists with troops involved in the expected invasion of Iraq. )

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