Marines in desert, braced for war, tired of waiting

November 12, 1990|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Sun Staff Correspondent

EASTERN SAUDI ARABIA -- By the time the general finished his announcement, the Marines who had stood for an hour in neat ranks in the desert sun knew their last hope of an early return to the United States had evaporated.

Brig. Gen. Michael Myatt, commander of the 1st Marine Division, kept his message short: Forget about additional U.S. forces coming to the Persian Gulf to allow them to go home. The new deployments of troops, ships and warplanes announced last week by President Bush are arriving as reinforcements, not replacements.

"He was telling us the worst," Dennis Hollingshead, a medic, said after the general left. "He was telling us much more than what he actually said."

At the isolated desert camp of the 3rd Battalion of the 9th Marine Regiment, and at dozens of other outposts like it, the clearly understood message being delivered by senior commanders was that the United States was intensifying preparations for fighting Iraq and that troops already here should give up any hope of transfers back to the United States until the crisis in the Persian Gulf is resolved.

The message was greeted with a mixture of misgiving and relief. Marines said that they were convinced that they would prevail in any clash with Iraq but that they found desert duty almost intolerable because of boredom and a lack of information about the timetable for either an attack or orders to return home.

"People don't like just sitting," said Sgt. Clifford Yeater, 45, the oldest member of the 3rd Battalion, a unit of more than 1,000. "Morale is still good, but people would like to go home. But the next best thing is just to go in."

Waiting has come to seem a particularly difficult assignment because of the local constraints. For nearly three months, the 3rd Battalion has been living in almost trackless desert. Its home is bleached of color, almost without vegetation and without effective shelter against the wind or sand.

When on leave, battalion members cannot get a legal drink of alcohol, wear shorts in public or in any other way violate Saudi Arabia's conservative public norms.

"You're so restricted in what you can do," Sergeant Yeater said. "You can't have a beer. You don't have a natural outlet for your frustration."

General Myatt offered few words of comfort. "We're going to stay here as long as it takes," he said. "Marines are going to accept it. They know they're going to stay until the job gets done."

His remarks appeared to reflect new assumptions by military commanders and political officials that economic sanctions against Iraq may fail to convince it to withdraw from Kuwait. Without announcing any deadline for sanctions to work, U.S. officials have said that the only alternative would be the use of military force.

Marines seem increasingly convinced that they will see combat.

In the range of their understanding about why they are here, the members of two Marine battalions probably mimic the range of knowledge among their families in the United States. Most, but not all, know that the president of Iraq is Saddam Hussein. Most, but not all, know that Kuwait is to their north.

Most say they are convinced that the main U.S. interest in the region is Saudi Arabia's vast petroleum reserves.

"From the little they tell us," said Lance Cpl. Thomas Davis, "it's the oil fields. Got to protect that gasoline."

As he spoke, Corporal Davis was demonstrating the frustrating art of erecting a tent in soft sand. Tent stakes never seem long enough, the ground never solid enough, the tent never sufficiently taut. For what seemed like the 10th time, the platoon was starting over on the job.

Corporal Davis' unit, another battalion under General Myatt's command, has shoveled aside sand dunes to create a supply depot crowded with armored vehicles, artillery and crated spare parts.

It was not a cheerful battalion. It had been ordered to clean up the base because several reporters were being brought there. There was grumbling about politicians in Washington, about the harsh environment and, above all else, about having to wait. Members of the unit were unhappy at the prospect of living indefinitely in sand.

Almost without exception, they also said they believed they had important work to do.

"The fact is, if the Marine Corps pulls out of here, this is open territory -- it would be Saddam's playground," said Gunnery Sgt. Stanley White. "The thing we say among ourselves is that we're going to give it 150 percent so we can get out of this alive, whether you feel it's right or not."

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