On base: a day in the life

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A typical day for me begins at 8:00 a.m. I am probably the last to hear my travel alarm and wake up, but my tent-mates are kind not to complain.

Must. Have. Water. Bottled water by the bed is a necessity in the desert. After chugging, I strip out of my extra layers of clothing and change into light nylon pants. At night, the temperatures can drop into the 40s.

There are three things I must always have with me: my media identification card, my backpack with my NBC (nuclear-chem-bio) suit, and my gas mask. The mask fits inside a canvas holster that rests on my upper left leg. I can sling the straps around my waist and clip myself in now just as fast as I put on a T-shirt. Today I noticed that the chafing of the canvas has frayed my pants after only a few days of wearing the holster.

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My first destination each morning is the bathroom trailers, three minutes down the gravel-and-dust corridors of Tent City. Every other day I take a shower - it's too much of a hassle to carry all my extra toiletries every morning.

After brushing my teeth with the non-potable water, I return to the tent. Here I slap on some sunscreen and pick up my pen, notebook, cell phone, sunglasses, bottled water, and digital camera bag. At this point, stuff bulges from every pocket of my hiking pants, which often sag under the weight.

I hit the chow hall. That's another few minutes away, down some busy, paved streets. If I'm lucky there won't be the usual 10-minute line at the entrance.

Food services manager, Tech Sergeant John Bock, tells me that they try not to repeat any one meal in a 28-day period. Considering the thousands that the cafeteria must feed, the food is decent. As with cafeterias everywhere, people generally sit with friends and that creates some separation between officers and enlisted personnel, Marines and airmen and women. "One team, one fight" but not when they grab a bite.

At this point I meet up with a representative of the unit I will be observing and interviewing that day. Every two days I get to switch to a new group. One big lesson I learned quickly: There is an amazing number of specialty squadrons needed to operate an air base and send out fighter jets. Units run the gamut: maintenance crews, emergency rescue teams, intelligence gatherers, NBC experts, bomb builders, Patriot battery battalions, lodging coordinators - and that's not the half of it.

As a reporter, one of the biggest challenges is deciphering military acronyms and negotiating classified material. Many on base have been given a briefing that lays out ground rules for interacting with journalists. As a result, I regularly ask a question or try to snap an image that I'm told is classified. I'll track the number of times this happens and append it to the dispatches.

The military has an acronym for everything. Signs warn me about UXOs, or unexploded ordinances. My hosts here are called PAOs, or public affairs officers. I'm told I can buy phone cards at the BX, or base exchange.

"It takes you a good year to be in a conversation with someone who's been in 10 years and be able to follow him," says Captain Trey Chastain of the 75th fighter maintenance squadron. "That's just to keep up. It takes 30 years to understand the conversation you just had."

Apparently in "media training," our PAOs tell people not to speak with acronyms. I guess it's a hard habit to break.

At 4:00 p.m. I leave the unit to check in with my editors in Boston. It's an 8-hour time difference, so their day has just begun. Sometimes I use my Kuwaiti cellphone. Other times I set up a satellite phone so I can call and check e-mail. The sat phone took several frustrating days to master, but I now can flip out the antenna and wire it up to the controller and my laptop in under two minutes. To get an unobstructed path to the satellite, I place the antenna on a concrete barrier, oriented towards the southeast at a 30-degree angle.

Afterwards I head to base headquarters where they have set up a small media room. It's a narrow room crammed with desks and my fellow journalists and their equipment. Here I will catch up with the news, download and sort my photos, answer reader e-mail, and write the day's dispatch. I usually break up the work with dinner at the chow hall and the occasional smoothie over at the "Hubbly Bubbly" dry bar. I usually head "home" around midnight.

If my day seems long, it's nothing outstanding here at the base. Few people here work only an eight-hour day, and days off are rare. It's a big complaint about being forward deployed. But, say most, there's not much else to do on base anyway.

It's a lonely walk in the dark from the media room to my tent. The shortest path winds around street barricades, construction ditches, and power cords that I double check to make sure aren't snakes.

In the tent, I grope for my Maglight and alarm clock. Finally, I unhinge my gas mask holster and carefully place it on a suitcase close enough that I can reach it from bed. I visualize the 20 paces to the nearest blast-protected bunker, and I pray I won't have to make that journey before the morning.

Classified moments: 10

Water bottles so far: 11

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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