Life among the military: dust, shower lines, gas drills

Saturday, March 15th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Associated Press reporters are on assignment with various U.S. military units preparing for possible war against Iraq. Here are some looks at life in those military units.

Tuesday, March 4

ABOARD THE USS KITTY HAWK (AP) _ Check-in at a military base for a flight to an aircraft carrier is much the same as at any civilian airport _ except maybe for the rifle case among the carry-on luggage.

The ride couldn't be more different. Wearing life jackets, protective headgear and strapped in facing backward with over-the-shoulder and lap harnesses, the first journalists to be ``embedded'' with the U.S. military for a possible war in Iraq exchanged uneasy glances as hoses crisscrossing the passenger hold of the droning C2-A Greyhound began expelling vapor.

But any fears about hissing hoses were quickly overshadowed by new ones engendered by the aerial acrobatics designed to slow the plane and set it up for landing on the carrier flight deck _ the length of two football fields and dotted with parked warplanes. One, two, three sharp, banking turns in quick succession, then a stomach-turning drop and THUMP, the plane's arrived.

The cargo bay doors whine open to reveal a scene reminiscent of science fiction _ creatures hidden behind heavy goggles, helmets and bright-colored sweaters _ some of the flight deck crew, who start hoisting bags and helping the newcomers climb down from the plane.

Welcome to the USS Kitty Hawk.

Friday, March 7:

Sailors are generally young and fit, and for good reason. How else could they endlessly climb up and down the ladders and through the hatches to get anywhere at all inside the Kitty Hawk?

After several days of this, a group of less-than-buff visiting journalists were relieved to discover an escalator that offered the promise of a ride up four floors. No such luck. It didn't run, and worse, the weight of four people who tried to use it as a staircase was enough to get it moving, in the wrong direction, sinking them slowly back to the start.

Saturday, March 8:

Water, water everywhere and, finally, something to drink. After 45 days at sea, the Kitty Hawk's crew was rewarded with a day off, including the closure of the flight deck for what is semiofficially known as a Steel Beach Picnic.

Unofficially, it's beer day. And the challenge for many sailors is somehow finagling more than their two-can ration. As honorary crew, embedded journalists were also allotted two cans of beer, and found themselves with generous new friends.

``Gimme your tickets and I'll go get your beers for you, I'll be right back,'' offered a sailor in a bright Bermuda-style shirt and shorts. Yeah, right. He did come back, but with a somewhat changed offer: ``The line was real long, so it's going to cost you. One for you, one for me,'' he said, holding out one warmish can of beer.

A quick mental calculation: It's been five days since I've seen the inside of a bar; for him, 45.

``Deal,'' I said.

Monday, March 10:

Officers from the admiral on down insist there's no need to worry about a chemical or biological attack if the United States and its allies attack Iraq. But they've issued protective suits to all of the more than 5,000 people on board, including the visiting media who received about two hours training in how to use them.

Charcoal-lined pants, a heavy, hooded jacket with an elastic tie that runs between the legs from the back to the front and super-sized rubber overboots that take on a bizarre-elf look when the toe is curled up and tied to the ankle.

Comfortable? ``Can't you tell I'm smiling?'' came the gas-mask muffled voice of Talk Radio correspondent Richard Miller, who served as guinea pig during the training.



Associated Press Writer

Sunday, March 9:

ABOARD THE USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT (AP) _ ``Don't be late for the COD,'' says one e-mail preparing us for ``embedding'' _ in my case, a tour on the USS Theodore Roosevelt, one of five aircraft carriers cruising the Mediterranean and the Gulf in preparation for _ whatever_ against Iraq.

The acronym stands for Carrier Onboard Delivery, a steel-gray turboprop plane that will take us on board.

It's a flight like no other, comparable perhaps only to the white-knuckle feel of being told by the mechanic seated next to me on the Romanian state airliner during the country's 1989 revolution that the plane had not been serviced for months.

We take off from a place the Navy tells us we are not allowed to name _ a dozen journalists strapped into seats in the innards of a plane that looks like plumbing gone bad. All of us are wearing life vests.

Drip. Drip. One of the pipes above us starts leaking liquid.

Sitting next to me, Garry Strieker of CNN grins sardonically as the drops start hitting his knee. The noise is hellish, even though we're all wearing cranials _ bulging wraparound ear protection that makes us look like the Star Wars' white armor-wearing foot soldiers.

It gets better. The plane suddenly, sickeningly banks 60 degrees. Then 60 degrees the other way. Then a thump and a bang. Three G-forces press us into our seats, and I suddenly understand why we are facing backwards. The ``wire'' _ the arresting cable used to keep planes from overshooting carrier decks _ has caught.

We have arrived.

Monday, March 10:

``Sleep well?'' asks a cheery young sailor, as I close the door on our sleeping quarters and head for _ well, the head.

In a word no. Our quarters consist of bunk beds stacked three high. The ship is a 24-hour operation. That means people walk by outside our compartment all hours of the day and night. And that means little sleep between the evening prayers over the loudspeaker and the morning wakeup call at 6 a.m.

The bunks themselves would stump Houdini. Less than three feet wide, they defy attempts to climb in normally, because the space between your bed and the one above is no more than a foot. Try getting in and out of such a space. And try to survive without banging your head _ AP photographer Richard Vogel didn't, judging by the ``thump'' and cursing coming from his space the first night.

Tuesday, March 11:

Pack lightly, they said. So I did. One pair of shoes, stalwart sneakers that have served me well over other assignments of the past seven years.

Suddenly, I feel a breeze. Looking down, I see that the stitching of my right shoe has broken, opening up my big toe. Day two, and already an elemental crisis.

At the canvas shop two flights down from the press room, Boatswains-mate Cliff Evans eyes the offending shoe without expression. My heart skips. Will he help? Can he help?

An hour later, Evans, 33, of Manpasas, Texas, who normally sews covers for on-deck weapons, has things well under control. Not only has he sewn the toe, but he has forced the thick needle and nylon thread through the front side of the other shoe, where the leather had threatened to separate from the rubber sole.



Associated Press Writer

Wednesday, March 12, with the 101st Airborne Division:

CAMP NEW JERSEY, Kuwait (AP) _ Imagine setting up a tent in your backyard sandbox, placing blowing fans on each side of it then moving in to live and work in the sea of dust. That's what it's like here in the desert of Kuwait.

Only you are not alone. Not ever.

And you don't have the luxury to go inside for indoor plumbing or long, hot showers.

I share a tent with 20 field-savvy female soldiers who have taught me tricks of the trade like don't turn your laundry in at the free laundry service tent. (I unfortunately didn't follow their advice and now most of my clothes are missing.)

They've maintained their sense of humor in the Army even after enduring many encounters like the one I had my first morning here after I stayed in the trailer housing the showers a minute past 6:30 a.m. _ the end of the early morning women's shower hour.

``It's 6:30,'' a male soldier barked at me after banging on the door. I stepped outside carrying my towel and soap to find 20 soldiers in line staring at me with tooth brushes in hand.

After two weeks here, however, things have become rather routine _ you get up when the sun comes up and go to bed when it goes down. I no longer get embarrassed to walk with a toilet paper roll to the latrine or think twice about grabbing my required gas mask to strap on each time I leave my tent.

We're allowed to shower every three days and most of the time the water is hot. We also have two hot meals a day with scrambled eggs and bacon in the morning and an entre of chicken and steamed broccoli at night _ not to mention ice cream bars served at every meal.

But this is a combat zone, and we all know we could move out at any time or enemy forces could come inside the barbed wire and sand berms that protect us.



Associated Press Writer

Wednesday, March 12, with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force:

IN THE KUWAITI DESERT (AP) _ We made our first trip to the Rock, a nearby Air Force base with pay phones, a basketball court, internet access and above all _ almost hot showers. The women's showers aren't working yet at Tent City, and we only have access to the men's ones for 45 minutes in the morning and 45 minutes at night.

We finished our showers just in time to strap on our gas masks for a two-hour drill. ``Gas Wednesday,'' as it is known here, is a regular feature and doesn't seem to get in the way of regular activities. Men and women _ eerily unfamiliar behind their masks _ played pingpong and watched CNN in the Air Force rec room, read books and chatted while doing their laundry, or lined up to make that precious phone call home.

The masks came in handy again tonight, when a sand storm blew in out of nowhere. Clouds of choking dust billowed through the camp, filling lungs and obliterating anything more than a couple of feet away. Even inside buildings, Marines and journalists alike pulled out their goggles and covered their faces with scarves, while outside some whipped out their masks to help them breath.

People emerged from showers and hangars looking like they had been dusted with powdered sugar. Others got lost trying to find their way back to their tents. We waited out the worst of it in the media area the Marines have set up for us in their command center, then hitched a ride with a truck headed back to the tents.

Sharp gusts of wind whipped our tent through the night and sent sand wafting inside, making it difficult to sleep _ or breath.

Friday, March 14:

We have a celebrity in our midst.

Throughout the day, Marines turn up at our press area to shake hands and take snap shots with retired Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North. The man at the center of the 1980s Iran-Contra scandal is now doing standups in front of a helicopter landing pad for Fox News.

``When people say, 'Who are you?' I say we're the people sitting next to Oliver North,'' jokes NBC's Bob Arnot, no stranger to attention himself.

``My honest opinion, though, he handles it extremely well. He is very gracious, very affable, and gives us added insight into the Corps.''

We also get a lot of Marines stopping by for news. Some are interested in sports scores, or the latest news from their home town. But the single most asked question is: ``When is the war going to start?'' And we were hoping they could tell us.



Associated Press Writer

Thursday, March 13, with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit:

NORTHERN KUWAIT (AP) _ No sleep last night. A sandstorm blew down the tent I was sharing with three other journalists and Marines from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

We had just laid our sleeping bags on the sand floor of the tent, exhausted from hours of riding through the rough desert on the unpadded bench seats in the back of a Marine's 7-ton truck. It was only 9 p.m., but we were all tired and there was no light or electricity, except from our flashlights. So sleep seemed the best option.

The desert wind hit the tent with the suddenness of a train crash. We could see one side of the tent collapsing. It was a huge tent. I tried to hold up one of the three, 15-foot-tall steel poles _ more like steel girders _ that support the roof.

The tent walls flapped wildly, but AP photographer Itsou Inouye, sitting in the sand, was intently sending his pictures by satellite telephone, oblivious to the titanic struggle going on around him between the tent and the journalists and Marines.

The tent was winning.

We ran outside and drove new stakes in the ground, almost blinded by sand and darkness. It was too late. Two of the steel poles fell, including one that landed across my sleeping bag, which could have made me an early casualty of the yet-to-be Iraq conflict.

We took our sleeping bags outside and lay in the sand, finding meager shelter behind a pile of supplies. Most of the night went to trying to breathe, rather than trying to sleep. At about 6 a.m. I gave up, brushing sand out of my face and giving a new definition to the cliche about ``rubbing the sand out of your eyes.''

I'm sitting in a tiny blue tent. A sandstorm is brewing, and one side of the tent is caving in. I hope this one fares better.

We don't have access to electricity to charge our equipment yet, and my batteries are already running low. There are no latrines, only a ditch. I dream of conditions soon improving from impossible to just extremely difficult.



Associated Press Writer

Thursday, March 13, with the 3rd Infantry Division:

IN THE KUWAITI DESERT (AP) _ I woke up coated in dust. On my sleeping bag, in my hair, in my eyes and crusted around my lips. Spc. Marcus Coe, from New Port Ritchie, Fla., who sleeps across from me, sat up and said: ``I'm pulling chunks of cement from my eyes.''

The storm lasted for most of the night, but slacked off around 6:00 a.m., at sunrise. The wind always slows at dawn or dusk, something about the transition between the heating and cooling of the desert. The soldiers quickly put the dining tent back up and soon the truck carrying breakfast from the battalion command post arrived with the army's equivalent of TV dinners.

The trays of eggs and corned beef hash are steaming hot after being immersed in boiling water. Cut off the foil lid, and there are enough eggs for 15 soldiers, just waiting to be spooned out on cardboard trays. These are called T-rations, for tray rations, and are most welcome as an alternative to an MRE, where you could find yourself eating a cold Thai-style chicken for breakfast.

Not long after the last meal was served did the winds kick up again, and with it, what seemed like most of the Kuwaiti desert. AP photographer John Moore and I decided it was not worth risking the equipment to try to work, a conclusion also reached by most of the soldiers. We spent most of the morning in our cots, watching the dust swirl through the tent and waiting for it to end.

By sunset, the storm had passed completely, and soon it was a still, cool and beautiful desert night. Since I had generator power and calm conditions, I offered to play a DVD for the guys in my tent. They picked ``South Park, The Movie,'' something I bought assuming they would like it. I didn't realize that it lampooned the military in one part, but knew I was free of embarrassment when Saddam Hussein was portrayed as Satan's abusive lover. Saddam's death at the end, and a whole new vocabulary of swear words made the movie a hit.



Associated Press Writer

Friday, March 14, with 3rd battalion, 7th Infantry, 1st Marine Division:

IN THE KUWAITI DESERT (AP) _ The Marines here share almost anything.

1st Sgt. Thomas Humphries, 40, of Lexington, Ky., got a huge package today from his father back in the States.

When he opened it, he discovered the sorts of treats Marines crave here: potato chips, baby wipes and a shortwave radio.

He first picked up the radio, and I told him the local stations where he could here news in English. He then picked up a shoebox inside the package filled with small bags of chips and offered me one.

I refused.

This man has been living in the desert for nearly two months and I have only been here for two days. How could I possibly take his chips.

Within hours, I was offered a Pepsi, a Rice Krispie treat and gummy bears all sent from home. I quickly realized that taking some of what was being offered was an important way to bond with the Marines, and I tried to reciprocate by giving them magazines.

Capt. Daniel Schmitt, 31, of Glen Ellyn, Ill., asked me if there was anything I needed. I told him I needed some camping gear and he gave me his. Don't worry about it, he said, I can take it off one of my men who will be hanging back.