Giant voice goes silent

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It all began one morning when a base alert failed to wake me up. Alerts warn of possible incoming missiles, so it seemed important to get to the bottom of the problem. What I learned shouldn't surprise anyone: Underneath this high-tech military lurks a sometimes convoluted bureaucracy.

I'm a heavy sleeper, so first I had to establish that my neighbors hadn't heard the alert as well. Gravel crunched underfoot as I walked the alleys between the tents talking with people out and about. Hundreds of troops live in Tent City, crammed in at 10 or 12 to a tent.

Turns out that those who live in quarters closer to the main compound had heard the alert. Poor souls like me who live about a dozen tent rows away near the berm - a dirt wall that once formed the base perimeter - had not. In the marines' compound, which sits on the other side of the berm, nothing had stirred, not even a camel spider.

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The next morning, I bumped into the wing commander at the press center. I told him that a lot of people in the tents couldn't hear the alert.

"Oh, I'm glad you told me that," he said with deep concern. He assured me that he would pay a visit to the communication guys. Now, the commander seems like a nice enough guy, but he doesn't live in a tent by the berm. Rank has its privileges - and housing is one of them.

I dropped in later on the officer in charge of the basewide intercom, or, as it's known on base, the "giant voice." The captain told me that as the base expanded, they had trouble getting coverage in some part of Tent City.

But the problem was fixed, he said. Just like in the cell phone commercial communications specialists had walked around the base checking on giant voice coverage. (Can you hear me now?) After repairs and upgrades, they reported full coverage.

He smiled. I smiled. It was clear I needed to investigate further. I went to find the land mobile radio guys. The LMR guys are located in the back of a building on a congested side street lined with satellite dishes, camouflage netting, and razor wire.

The trip was worth it, because it was here among the enlisted that my investigation got more interesting. The LMR technicians told me coolly that the three white guard towers along the berm needed power hookups before speakers could be installed. Until then, the giant voice would only be broadcast on one side of Tent City, the side closest to the main compound. The order for the power hookups had been placed over a month ago with Civil Engineering (CE).

I took a three-minute walk over to CE, convinced that I had found my villain.

The chief electrician told me his crew hadn't had time to hook up all three towers. A generator had been placed at one tower, he said, but the generator puts out 230 volts, while the giant voice equipment requires the American standard of 110 volts.

"What you need is a converter," he said.

The converter, I was told, could be obtained from "self-help," a supply shed filled with construction materials.

"We provide the overall power and not the individual appliances," he said. In other words, he had told the radio guys it was their job to fetch the converter, not his. And the radio guys apparently did not want to sign self-help paperwork.

Obviously, I could no longer remain an objective observer. I walked the 50 feet over to the self-help Quonset hut.

Inside the dark and cavernous storage facility, two young men idled on office chairs. I had reached the bottom of the food chain, where, ironically, the best judgment on base seemed to abide.

"I think that you doing this is absolutely absurd because it's the military's job to provide you the security you need," said Airman Timothy Armentor.

Tim walked over to a pile of boxes and brought me the magical converter. No paperwork, no sweat.

I walked back to LMR and dropped the converter onto the counter. This wasn't the first converter they'd seen, they told me.

They had installed a converter and hooked up the giant voice equipment once before. But someone had pilfered the converter - a hot commodity for those who have video game systems and TVs from the States. The thief had the moronic decency to plug the speakers back in to the power. Without the converter, the speakers blew.

"Marines," they grumbled.

The radio guys had no solid evidence that it was a marine's fault. And in the finest tradition of interservice rivalry, the Air Force personnel here regard marines as all brawn and no brains. The marines, meanwhile, think the "wing boys" are pansies. For all the officer talk of this being a "purple" base, symbolizing service integration, rivalry and miscommunication are often in evidence.

And so, somehow, the issue was now a marine problem. I called over to the marines. They had, indeed, addressed the issue by hanging sheets of metal around their tents. If they were notified of a gas attack, the marines planned to alert each other by knocking metal against metal and yelling really loudly.

Fortunately, the converters have been installed, and as of yet, no one has stolen any of them.

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

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