Like many Americans, Jaime Pagant rethought his life after Sept. 11. Horrified by the carnage he witnessed that day at the World Trade Center, he quit his job as a New York City policeman and joined the Army.
Today, 16 months later, Private First Class Pagant is honing his infantry skills in the Kuwaiti desert - and preparing for possible war with Iraq.
"I knew the situation was going to get worse after 9/11, and I thought I could do more in the Army than being a policeman," he says. "Five other policemen from my precinct joined up as well."
Pagant is one of some 140 soldiers in Bravo Company, part of the US Army's 3rd Infantry Division. The unit is among the 17,000 American troops deployed to Kuwait. Up to 200,000 US troops are expected to be in the Gulf by mid-February.
Since their arrival three weeks ago, Bravo Company has been training in this vast sand plain in the northwest quarter of Kuwait for a live-fire exercise. Many of the soldiers believe it is only a matter of time before the order is given to cross the border into Iraq. "I have never heard of the United States moving 150,000 men to somewhere and then not go to war," says Cpl. Donny Hendricks, part of a two-man sniper team. The soldiers say they think the war to oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein will begin in mid-February.
"We have been told that all contact with our families - e-mails, letters, and phone calls - will cease after Feb. 1... We will deploy to our [tactical assembly area] on the 5th," says one soldier, referring to the point from which an attack would be launched. Interviewed in late January, he adds that the wives of Bravo Company soldiers were told that if war has not begun by March 1, the entire brigade will return home.
Many of the soldiers voice mixed feelings as they confront the prospect of war. "I can't say I am looking forward to it," Pagant says. "Many of us are married and we are worried about our families at home. I hope there is some way out of the situation."
Some of the soldiers complain they have not been issued personal ammunition for their rifles, a concern heightened by recent attacks against American personnel in Kuwait by Islamic militants. "We were sent out here so fast, the ammunition hasn't had time to catch up," one soldier says. "Apart from a few of us who brought our own ammunition, all the magazines in the rifles are empty."
Training and the superiority of their weapons give them confidence, but the troops are dogged by the fear that Saddam Hussein will resort to chemical or biological weapons. Each soldier carries a gas mask and a nuclear, biological, and chemical protective suit. "We have been practicing over and over getting that mask on in nine seconds," says Lieut. Charles Scheck of Damascus, Md. "I just hope we don't have to do it for real."
The sense that war is imminent gives an edge to the rigorous training, which this day involves breaching a minefield and a line of barbed wire, and then attacking and clearing two trench systems.
The soldiers travel in Bradley fighting vehicles, armored cars mounted with 25mm cannons and antitank missile launchers. Although there are several Army camps, they sleep where they finish the day - squeezing into the back of the Bradley or simply finding a spot out of the cold wind and sleeping on the damp sand.
After a day of practice, Bravo Company uses live ammunition for the first time since arriving in Kuwait. Dozens of Bradleys, tanks, and Humvees race through the desert, cresting a line of sand dunes and plunging down the other side. Several artillery shells filled with phosphorous explode about 100 feet in the air.
A team of engineers in armored personnel carriers moves forward and halts at the edge of a "minefield." A rocket, trailing explosive rope, is fired across the minefield and detonated in a deafening blast of orange flame and black smoke. The minefield breached, the Bradleys surge through and disgorge their soldiers, who run toward the trenches. Rifle fire crackles as the soldiers leap into the trench, spraying bullets at the bunkers.
The next day, the live-fire exercise is repeated, only this time at night. Each soldier is equipped with night-vision goggles that turn the darkness into a ghostly luminous green. But the difficulties of fighting in the dark are quickly apparent. Though the troops have rehearsed the exercise four times in day and night, smoke from an exploding torpedo, used to demolish barbed wire, has obscured the target. The advance pauses. The soldiers wait patiently as the voices of senior officers crackle tersely over the radio. The exercise concludes successfully in the early hours of the morning and the exhausted soldiers settle down for the night.
Capt. Matthew Neumayer from Dearborn, Mich., Bravo Company's commanding officer, says his soldiers are "the best in the world" and ready for combat. "I don't think anyone looks forward to war," he says. "But I'm preparing the guys as best as I can in case we do cross that border."