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For Soldiers in Gulf, Anti-War Protests at Home Sting Like a Slap

January 25, 1991

ON DEATH ROW HIGHWAY, Saudi Arabia (AP) _ This stretch of two-lane blacktop is named for accidents, not combat, but convoy drivers know that could change fast.

They hate it when people safe at home protest against the war.

″You tell those people we’re tired of protesters,″ said Sgt. Joe Silva, a military policeman from Fort Hood, Texas, parked by the side of the road. ″We got a job to do, and that doesn’t help any.″

On the roof of his armored vehicle, Cpl. Jonathan Lueck read a copy of Star & Stripes propped against his .50 caliber machine gun.

″There’s more stuff about protesters in here,″ he called down. ″They’re only a minority, but they make a lot of noise. I don’t want to go home and get spit on like my relatives in Vietnam.″

These soldiers’ views reflect the predominant mood among nearly a half- million Americans facing a widening war with Iraq: They know most of America is behind them, but anti-war protests sting like a slap.

Up along this supply road to front-line positions, where troops shelter each night within range of chemical-agent artillery shells, feelings can run high.

″Anti-war protesters?″ repeated a young Marine. ″They’re a bunch of ....″ The rest of his sentence, largely anatomical, made his point clearly.

Cpl. Charles Botkin, 25, a soft-spoken Marine from Colorado Springs, Colo., had a more reasoned response.

″No matter how few they are, they always end up on the front page or the nightly news,″ he said. ″Still, they’re not going to accomplish anything by raising voices.″

Staff Sgt. Kenneth Dillon, from Jacksonville, N.C., agreed. Voices raised in support of soldiers but against the war only made it harder for troops to fight battles they cannot avoid, he said.

But Dillon said he felt most of his country was behind the troops.

″My wife told me that 87 percent of the people support what we’re doing, and that’s good enough for me,″ he said.

However the troops feel, few have very much time to ruminate.

At a convoy marshaling station on Death Row Highway, road warriors wheel in dusty vehicles from M-60 tanks on transports to Ford-built World War II jeeps rescued from the junk heap.

One armored vehicle, called a humvee, is emblazoned, ″Baghdad Express.″ Many of the trucks fly American flags stuck in side-view mirrors or the dashboard.

″I’m so busy I don’t even listen to what people are saying back home,″ said Sgt. Michael Baber, who helps service the convoys. ″After 12 hours, I only want to know what my pillow has to say.″

Baber, from the Napa wine country in northern California, has only one complaint, a common one in Desert Sword: an unquenched thirst. ″I told my father to buy me a truckload of Napa’s finest and let it sit there until I get back,″ he said.

Lt. Col. Hu Blazer, commander of the 176th Maintenance Battalion of the Tennessee National Guard, shrugs at the protests. He fought in Vietnam, and he knows there are other things to worry about.

″Sure, it bothers you a little bit, but that’s what our freedom is all about - the right to protest,″ he said. ″That’s our constitution at work.″

Besides, he said, public support overwhelms the detractors.

Major Bradley Moffitt, a combat support commander under Blazer, pointed to their unit’s departure from Johnson City, Tenn., as an example.

″We have a little city of 50,000, and about 20,000 were there to see us leave,″ he said. ″Nobody told them to turn out. Those people don’t fade away.″

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