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Morale Higher Than in Vietnam Despite Griping, Homesickness

December 20, 1990


IN EASTERN SAUDI ARABIA (AP) _ The mail’s still slow, the pre-packaged food is monotonous and there are few places to unwind. The flies and scorpions have not retreated before the biggest American force sent overseas in 20 years.

But Staff Sgt. Joe Estes, a 25-year Army veteran, said morale after four months in the desert is ″100 percent better″ than in the dark years of Vietnam.

There’s plenty of griping and a universal desire to go home, especially as Christmas approaches, but there are few serious symptoms of a demoralized fighting force.

The ″booze, broads and drugs″ synonymous with Vietnam are forbidden in this conservative Moslem kingdom.

Since American soldiers arrived to confront Saddam Hussein and his occupation of Kuwait, only a few have been caught drinking. There have been no reports of drug use or illegal fraternization with Saudi women.

Fragging, the GI tactic in Vietnam of getting rid of unpopular officers with a grenade or bullet, is not even mentioned.

The draftees of Vietnam and their hatred for the military establishment are long gone. In 1990, the U.S. military is a totally volunteer force.

Many soldiers in Operation Desert Shield admit they never expected to fight a war, but they are prepared to do their job, whether it is flying an F-15 fighter, firing a howitzer or washing uniforms.

″You’ve got a more educated, a more physically fit type of Army you’re working with now,″ said Estes, a wiry 42-year-old infantryman from Nashville, Tenn., who was in Vietnam near the height of U.S. involvement in 1967-68.

″Morale’s at an all-time high. Confidence is real high,″ he said, watching top-of-the-line M1A1 tanks rumble off the cargo ship Cape Inspiration.

Brig. Gen. Steven L. Arnold, assistant chief of staff in the Army Forces Central Command, served two tours in Vietnam. He said the Army had recovered from that traumatizing conflict and subsequent antagonism to the military.

″This is as good a peacetime army as I think has ever existed,″ he said. ″I know people are saying (the troops) are complaining. ... Soldiers are always complaining about things, but that’s not an indication of morale.″

As Marine Cpl. Ed Walsh of Las Vegas put it: ″If a Marine ain’t griping, he ain’t happy.″ Walsh, 21, is with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.

Arnold said the key to morale is whether ″soldiers willingly do the right thing without being told and ... do it well. That’s discipline, and a disciplined force is really a high-morale force.

″When you have forces that are challenged, and you’re giving them the type of training that meets their expectations, I think you see a lot of high morale. You see it here.″

One yardstick for morale is mental health.

″We’ve had very little business,″ said Capt. Frank Mullins, 54, of Mobile, Ala., a psychologist with the Mental Health Unit at the U.S. Navy’s Fleet No. 5 Hospital. ″Morale has been excellent from what we’ve seen. People can complain a lot, bitch and carry on, but morale can be very high.″

Desert Shield is the biggest U.S. military operation since Vietnam, where U.S. strength reached 545,000 at its peak. More than 240,000 American personnel now are in the gulf and 200,000 more will be in place by mid- January.

Complaints in a force of that size are inevitable. Two of the biggest problems are monotony and few escapes.

″This is a prison; you can’t go anywhere,″ moaned Lance Cpl. Steven Jenkins, 24, of Neptune, N.J., a maintenance man with a Marine air wing.

Army Sgt. Kenneth Hetzer, 32, had other complaints after nearly three months in a forward position with the 75th Field Artillery Brigade: Soldiers had holes in their boots, weren’t allowed to use the telephone and had to pay $3 for a block of ice.

Walsh said that, despite the griping, ″we’re really locked on. If war comes, it’d be like uncoiling a snake. ... There’s nothing that can stop us.″

Attitudes differ in front and rear units, and between full-time soldiers and the reserve and National Guard units mobilized at short notice.

″Morale was very high and it got higher as we got closer to the Kuwaiti border,″ said Rep. Robert J. Lagomarsino, a California Republican who visited the troops last month with a 20-member congressional delegation.

″The more primitive the conditions, the higher the morale,″ he said. ″The people in the more primitive conditions are the combat infantry, the combat Marine forces that were trained in the desert, so they know what they’re doing.″

Army Sgt. 1st Class Thomas Melton, 39, of Florence, Ala., said: ″The guys up there know they’ve got a mission. Down here, it’s just sit and wait for your equipment to come in and get to your location. It’s very boring to sit around waiting. That’s the big problem.″

Melton has traveled extensively in Saudi Arabia as part of the 207th Military Intelligence Brigade.

In the words of Marine Cpl. Carlin Walters, 21, of Vidor, Texas: ″The boredom gets pretty strenuous. It’d be better just to go ahead and get it over with.″

The Marines, all in forward positions near the Kuwaiti border, and Army combat units like the 82nd Airborne Division have reputations for high morale in bad conditions.

At the other extreme are rear units with serious problems, like the 1241st Postal Unit from the Alabama Army National Guard.

″We’ve got a lot of soldiers ready to go home,″ said Sgt. Michael Smith, 32, of Montgomery. ″The morale around here’s at the very bottom. If things were different and we were civilians, we’d probably strike.″

For most soldiers, the toughest thing is not knowing when they will go home.

″Either an operation or a go-home date is going to boost morale,″ said 1st Lt. Bruce Lake, 29, of Newport News, Va., a platoon leader with the 24th Infantry Division.

With the usual GI diversions banned, the military has tried to keep morale up with sports, movies and music.

Mail is the biggest booster.

″Mail equals morale,″ Lake said.

Veterans like Estes, who never heard a word of support from the American public while fighting in Vietnam, are overwhelmed by the flood of letters his countrymen send to ″any serviceman″ in Saudi Arabia.

Many GIs have found new pen pals, including churches, clubs and schools.

″This place here is just what you make it,″ said Staff Sgt. Jeanne Kendall, 35, of Piedmont, Ohio, an Air Force mechanic.

″We’ve made it one big party. Bring a guitar and have a singalong.″

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