For GIs In Desert, Time Hangs Heavy
IN EASTERN SAUDI ARABIA (AP) _ The 24th division’s ″Battle Kings″ man 155mm howitzers, but the only weapons used in anger are flyswatters. The enemy, for many, is a clock that moves too slowly.
″People keep telling lies that morale is high,″ said Spec. Chris Hernandez of San Antonio, Texas, playing cards with friends who nodded assent. ″They’re only fooling themselves. Morale is low.″
A sampling of the 200,000 soldiers and Marines deployed under Operation Desert Shield to confront Iraq suggests a classic military malaise: Troops, with no idea of when new orders might come, want to get back to their lives.
Some have been in the blistering northeastern Saudi desert for more than two months preparing for a battle that might never come.
The desert weather is cooling down, but the sand remains, fouling equipment, jamming weapons and fraying tempers.
But many are still anxious to fight. Marine Sgt. Marco Rodriguez, a 23- year-old aircraft mechanic from Santa Barbara, Calif., left no doubt.
″I’ll come home in one of two ways, the big parade or in a body bag,″ he said. ″I prefer the former, but I’ll take the latter.″
Lack of enthusiasm, however, seemed more common.
Field commanders like Lt. Col. Stephen Lutz, of the 3rd Battalion, 41st Field Artillery - the Battle Kings - scrounge videos, books, volleyballs and games to help their troops get by.
″We’re thinking about this every day,″ Lutz said of growing morale problems. ″We try to provide some relief and outlet for the soldiers.″
Sgts. Steve Coles, of Pittsburgh, Pa., and Ty McWhorter of Wichita Falls, Texas, weren’t convinced by the efforts. They spent last Christmas in Panama on Operation Just Cause. This year, they figure, they’ll miss out again.
″All the goodies, we don’t want them,″ Coles said. ″We only want one thing: to go home. And that’s speaking on behalf of everyone.″
McWhorter nodded gravely. His daughter was born 17 months ago, just before desert training. Then came Panama and more desert training. And then Saudi Arabia.
Like most others, Coles and McWhorter acknowledged Desert Shield was made up of volunteer service people. Like many others, however, they said that if they weren’t going to fight, they had no business sitting around in the desert.
Spec. Darnell Thompson of Akron, Ohio, said his daughter was born in early October, and the news - from the Red Cross - took 10 days to reach him. He had been due for discharge soon but emergency orders extended his stay for six months.
″We’re not prisoners and shouldn’t be held against our will,″ he said.
Four soldiers playing cards broke in to condemn the long, uncertain wait.
William Curtis, 22, of Kelso, Wash., was barechested against the heat, revealing a snarling tiger tattooed on his right shoulder. On the left was a heart with the names of his three children. A fourth child is due anytime.
″If my wife’s going to read this, tell her I love her,″ he said.
″My question is why are we here?″ said Spec. Anthony Zipperer of Ruskin, Fla. ″Kuwait’s such a little country. It’s not a democracy. If this isn’t for oil, why are we fighting?″
He laughed and added: ″I won’t tell you what I really feel. I’ve only said what I can get away with.″
Another shouted: ″I don’t see why I should fight for constitutional rights that are denied to me.″
The reporter, on an escorted tour, had to move on before he could get an elaboration.
Morale is a sensitive question. After grousing 24th Division soldiers were quoted in the New York Times, the commanding general restricted access to individual reporters.
″One man insulted the president,″ an information officer said on condition of anonymity. He referred to a remark that President Bush should come out and drink hot water with the troops to see things up close.
Such remarks, however, were common, not only in the 24th but also among the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force and elsewhere among the U.S. forces.
Sgt. Christopher Paugh, 28, a Marine aircraft mechanic from Philadelphia, wondered why troops couldn’t have a cold beer. Someone said U.S. forces had to be careful not to upset the Saudis, for whom alcohol is forbidden by Islam.
Paugh retorted: ″Hey, if they don’t want us on their side, they can fight their own damned holy wars on their own land by themselves. We’ll go home.″
Senior army field officers blame the morale problem on uncertainty. In Vietnam, a tour of duty was fixed at 13 months. In Korea, troops had a calendar for marking off the days.
Operation Desert Shield, deployed in haste after Iraq invaded Kuwait Aug. 2, is undefined. Rumors fly: one-year tours, or six months, or 18 months, or war any day.
Some soldiers fault their comrades for grousing about a job they volunteered for, with risks they agreed to take.
″It’s part of the army,″ Lutz said. ″I was away when my son was born, too. No one likes that part, but it is our job.″
For the majority who grumble but do their best to adjust, small comforts appear by the day.
Marines of the 311 Combat Support Wing, based in Yuma, Ariz., built a weight room from scrap wood and iron. A poster pinned to the camouflage netting reads: ″Body by Saudi.″
On a jeep outside, a driver decorated his unneeded defroster vent with a photo of his wife, an American flag and a Bart Simpson doll.
For Darin Gallow, 25, of Lake Charles, La., playing pickup basketball by himself with a locket photo of Darin Jr. around his neck, the luxury of letters from home makes the difference.
Quiet plans are afoot for rest and recreation trips. Some men and women take two-day breaks at a resort camp run by Aramco, the giant U.S.-Saudi oil company.
At the Battle Kings’ club, the small library is limited. Among the weighty tomes of military biographies and memoirs is a well-thumbed paperback change of pace: ″Dante’s Inferno.″