Just checked in at #98 tent city

I have finally arrived at the air base. Out of the desert rises this tightly packed and barricaded community. There are now over 8,000 personnel here, five times more than there were last July.

It's a mixed crowd. There are British and American airmen and women, US Marines, Navy Seabees, and Army Patriot battery operators, working with the group at the heart of it all: the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing. The 332nd is charged with enforcing the southern no-fly zone over Iraq, and is prepared to take on a new mission if the decision is made to go to war.

Half a world away from that decision-making in Washington and at the United Nations, these people already operate in a combat zone.

"We get shot at almost every day we go into Iraq," says Col. Tom Jones, commander of the 332nd.

Construction teams rush around the base, expanding facilities for the swelling ranks. So many people pack the base that it has become officially impractical to continue saluting.

Long lines jam the chow hall and the base exchange store. Religious services are standing room only. And the inchingly slow speed limit on the base's few roads must be taken seriously.

"We got so many people in here, we're just crammed into every nook and cranny," says Senior Master Sgt. Craig Newman, a superintendent of A-10 plane maintenance. "And it gets very old quickly."

Some of his maintenance crews sleep in an open warehouse with 150 beds. My digs at #98 in Tent City are slightly better. I am in a 12-person tent, along with five other journalists. We are being told to expect company soon.

The rows and rows of tents around us are mostly filled.

My tent has its amenities: a wood floor, an air conditioning system, and frame beds. Lights are still being installed, so at night I use a flashlight to dig through my stuff or head to the bathroom at the other end of Tent City. The experience reminds me of camping, except for the gas mask next to my pillow.

And the dust storms.

The storm hit in a matter of minutes. I was looking at the Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) display inside a parked HH-60 helicopter with one of the pilots, Surge. We were using the FLIR's heat imagery to compare buildings on the clear horizon. Seconds later, we looked up and the buildings on the horizon were gone, and the air was filled with sandy dust.

The sand here is a mix of small pebbles and a fine talcum-like sand. Winds of 40 knots or so pick up the powder and send it swirling into the air.

The stuff's nasty to breathe. It reminds me of when I was a student and some wise guy clapped all the chalkboard erasers in a small classroom - only worse, because the wind blows the sand into your mouth.

Surge is frustrated. He had just spent hours cleaning his room from top to bottom, but he had put off taping his windows. Now he will have to sweep, wash, and dust all over again.

On my way back to the tent for the night, I hear lots of coughing. The tents are not sealed tightly enough to prevent the dusty air from getting inside.

The front door, a piece of plywood with a sand-filled water bottle for a closing mechanism, doesn't shut entirely. I cover my nose with my fleece jacket, and fall asleep to the sound of flapping canvas.

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. His reporting is collected in the web special project Assignment: Kuwait (http://www.csmonitor.com/specials/kuwait/).

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