Baker visits U.S. troops sent to gulf Soldiers' questions reflect impatience

November 05, 1990|By Owen Ullmann | Owen Ullmann,Knight-Ridder News Service

EASTERN SAUDI ARABIA -- U.S. soldiers at a remote desert encampment here were visited yesterday by Secretary of State James A. Baker III for a morale-boosting pep talk. But Mr. Baker could not answer the questions most on their minds: Will there be war? When can they go home?

"Time is being wasted," grumbled Sgt. Lisa Jones, 29, of Toledo, Ohio, one of 4,200 men and women from the Army's 1st Cavalry Division, based at Ft. Hood, Texas. "Let's do something or go."

Mr. Baker expects to have a clearer answer in a week, when he concludes a seven-nation tour arranged to lay the groundwork for possible military action to force Iraq to end its occupation of Kuwait.

At his first stop, Bahrain, Mr. Baker received support for a U.S.-led effort in the United Nations to seek a resolution authorizing military force. "Their reaction was generally positive," senior State Department official said.

"There is no point to have big armies from all over the world and then to tie their hands," said Bahrain's information minister, Tariq Almoayed. "These armies from all over the world are not here for a picnic."

Mr. Baker could only offer the troops high-minded rhetoric about the importance of their mission: "Unprovoked aggression should not be rewarded."

That, Mr. Baker later acknowledged, was not what they wanted to hear.

"The main question is knowing what the future holds," Mr. Baker told reporters after his one-hour visit to the base, the exact location of which was not disclosed. "That's the one thing that people are asking more than anything else, and of course that's something that right now can't be answered with a great deal of specificity."

The uncertainty and endless waiting in the desert -- a month now for the troops at the encampment -- appeared to bother many soldiers more than the prospect of going to war against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Despite assurances from their commanders that morale is good, several soldiers expressed impatience, frustration or anger about spending an indefinite period in so harsh and isolated an environment.

"Let's go get him [Hussein] and go home," said one soldier who did not give his name.

"Most of us assume we'll be going to war sooner or later," added 2nd Lt. Henry Wardick, 23, a West Point graduate. "I'd like to go home as soon as possible, but let's get the job done."

Sgt. Kim Mathis just wanted to get back to Alabama. "I'm tired of eating this dirt. I'm tired of drinking hot water. I'm ready to go home," she said.

Mr. Baker, wearing khaki shirt and pants and worn cowboy boots, addressed the troops briefly with cooler rhetoric than President Bush has used recently in assailing Mr. Hussein's treatment of foreign hostages and vowing to force Iraq out of Kuwait.

Although these were the people who would fight a war, Mr. Baker did not talk of war.

"Unprovoked aggression should not be permitted to succeed, and the world made a terrible mistake in the '30s when we were unable or refused to stand up to unprovoked aggression," Mr. Baker said. "And we don't want to make the same mistakes that were made in the '30s."

Mr. Baker's historical reference was to the world's appeasement of Nazi Germany during its territorial expansion prior to World War II. But Mr. Baker did not explain the parallel to his youthful audience.

Mr. Baker, a former Marine, then went around shaking hands with officers and exchanging small talk. One officer gave him a wad of chewing tobacco, which Mr. Baker popped into his mouth. Another said he played football back in Texas with one of Mr. Baker's sons.

From the back row, some enlisted soldiers shouted for Mr. Baker to come back and talk.

"Have some hot water," one said of their drinking water. "Eat an MRE," shouted another, referring to their diet of Meals-Ready-to-Eat, such as chicken a la king. "Tell him to eat this for 30 days."

Mr. Baker then waded into a group of female soldiers. "I have a question," one of them said. "When are we going to get to go home?"

"How long you been here?" he asked.

"Too long," she replied.

"Thirty days," piped in another.

"Thirty days?" Mr. Baker asked. "Stay a little longer."

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