A trip into the desert

Good news: The military says that our gas masks and chem-bio suits have finally arrived. However, we won't receive them and get trained for another few days. Then, hopefully, we can embed.

In the meantime, I jump at the chance to visit a Navy Seabee camp at an air base in Kuwait. The military has been arranging short day trips for journalists to military facilities in the region, and four of us have been invited. We catch a ride with a Kuwaiti who is a friend of a fellow journalist.

Kuwait City soon gives way to the desert - think flat and scrubby West Texas, not the dunes of the deep Sahara.

Our driver suggests a short detour along the infamous "Highway of death," where US air forces attacked a huge convoy of fleeing Iraqis during Desert Storm. The road now looks like any freshly paved interstate and the normalcy spooks me.

We arrive at the base and check in with the guards at the front gate. Kuwaiti, American, and British forces man the entrance. Located only 39 miles from the Iraqi border, Al Salem serves as one of Kuwait's two main air bases. I will be embedding at the other base, Al Jaber, which is smaller and farther south.

Our press affairs officer, Chief Lorene Elliott, ushers us into two Humvees. As I climb into the back, my foot hits metal - a slot where an M-16 rifle can sit. No cup holders in this Hummer.

"Drive on the road today," Chief Elliott tells the driver, who is not long out of high school. "Aw, c'mon Chief, it wasn't that rough," the driver says back with a smile.

We pass by a paved landing field and dozens of Marine helicopters on our way into the Seabee camp. Seabees, formed as a division of the Navy in World War II, build things in hostile territory. In an invasion of Iraq, the Seabees expect to follow the Marines. They could be called on to set up Marine camps, build bridges, or construct prisons. The Seabees' domain includes power, plumbing, and assessing structural integrity of bombed-out areas.

Bulldozers, pavers, and other heavy machinery fill the camp's large parking lot. The main quad is bordered by precise rows of tents, a chow hall, a bunker, and a chapel. These are the four points of a soldier's compass.

Desert camouflage is de rigueur, except for a couple of off-duty women playing volleyball. Belt clips and containers hold a soldier's gun, ammo, first aid kit, and gas mask. Everyone carries bottled water. We are told to grab as many 1.5 liter bottles as we need from the piles of boxes scattered around camp. Local media reports say the coalition forces require 1.5 million bottles a day.

By bringing hundreds of the thousands of troops to the Gulf region, the US has transplanted a huge organization halfway around the world. But you can forget that as you move around this Seabee camp, which primarily houses the Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 133 from Gulfport, Miss. Everyone knows each other in this small corner of the base.

Master Chief Thomas Gomes, of Taunton, Mass., a burly officer with a careful, deliberate manner, has as good a pulse of the camp as anyone. It's his job to communicate between the officers and enlisted troops.

On the day I visited, all the TVs on base were tuned to Fox News. Gomes says that you could hear a pin drop in the chow hall when Secretary of State Colin Powell presented his evidence before the UN Security Council last month. The chow hall seats approximately 250 personnel and one TV in each of the four corners. Afterward, many wondered if the evidence would be convincing enough to gain greater support for their mission.

He says that morale sagged a bit after a recent sandstorm tore through the camp and forced a late-night hustle to repair the damage. Back in Kuwait City, where the radio forecasters predicted "sandy" weather, that same storm tossed the tops of the palm trees and lined my pockets with sand.

But what about the diplomatic tempest gusting through the United Nations and world capitals?

"Morale is not affected by antiwar demonstrations," Gomes assures me. "Morale is affected by not knowing when [a possible war] is going to happen."

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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