NEAR DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia -- Before dawn, the mournful wail of a Moslem prayer call sounded from a mosque outside the desert outpost of the Maryland National Guard.
As Spc. Willie Nicholson turned his sand-colored truck down a stretch of desert yesterday, the sweep of the vehicle's headlights illuminated an aged Saudi sitting on a dusty red carpet, rocking in prayer.
The man, among a handful of caretakers at this base -- once run by the Saudis' own national guard -- is a fixture in this encampment, as much as the sandbag bunkers, the black flies circling the plywood latrines and the plastic, pocket-sized pouches of eats -- beef stew, spaghetti, chicken a la king.
For many of the Maryland guardsmen patrolling this scruffy patch of sand as part of Operation Desert Shield, the Moslem in their midst is a symbol of their mission and their fears as they prepareto help free Kuwait in what could be a bloody, lengthy fight.
"I just want to do my part," said Spc. T. Ann McElroy of Kensington, her M-16 rifle swung casually over her shoulder.
Specialist McElroy, who joined the Guard in March after being discharged from the Army, has no illusions about what that might mean.
She was on her way to culinary school in Vermont when she got the call to report for active duty in November as part of President Bush's push to double the U.S. military presence in the Gulf.
And while the prospect of war with the Iraqis has made her "rethink" a planned 20-year career in the Guard, the peppy 23-year-old said: "Twenty-three is a young age to die. I plan on walking off the plane" when the conflict is over.
Right now, said Specialist Nicholson, of Salisbury, "We've got a lot of work to do."
And busy the Maryland guardsmen have been. Since arriving "in country" Dec. 9, the Maryland guardsmen from two military police companies -- the 200th, based in Salisbury, and the 290th, from Towson -- have joined about 500 other guardsmen and reservists from Ohio, Connecticut and Fort Meade to turn the filthy, abandoned base into a rustic, frontier town, equipped with the basics for survival. And what they have is brutally basic.
When the Guard first arrived at this site, about two hours from the Kuwaiti border, they found about a dozen trailers that served as barracks. The trailers were encrusted with feces.
Guardsmen wearing rubber gloves and face masks used gallons of heavy-duty bleach to clean and disinfect them. Now the barracks -- where guardsmen bunk three or six to a room on traditional, stiff-backed Army cots -- are festooned with Christmas cards and photos from home.
There is no hot water, and cold showers must be taken after nightfall, when 90-degree daytime temperatures drop to a cool 50 degrees.
The makeshift sinks are about a 50-foot walk from the barracks. They are merely props, where soldiers use bottled water to wash, shave and brush their teeth.
And despite the layers of clothes -- long-sleeved camouflage shirts, trousers that tuck into lace-high boots, hats and scarves -- the guardsmen can't seem to escape the flies or the sand.
"It's like living at the beach," said Sgt. Edward Fallon, a Baltimore Housing Authority police officer who lives in Reisterstown. "It XTC gets in your hair. You breathe it. It comes in with you. It goes out with you."
Breakfast and lunch come in brown plastic bags that are boxed and then slipped into heavy plastic pouches. They are known as MREs, for "meals ready to eat." Yesterday's breakfast of beef stew included a pouch of peanut butter, two crackers and cherry nut cake. The soldiers get a hot meal for dinner.
Mail arrived for the first time Friday, giving the troops a needed morale boost.
But calling home is a near impossibility -- there is one pay phone nearby for 700 soldiers, each of whom is allotted 7 1/2 minutes. And it can take that long to get a long-distance operator.
Although the Maryland guardsmen, as part of the 400th Military Police Battalion, are supposed to staff and operate prisoner-of-war camps, no such facilities have yet been built.
The battalion must first set up its base of operation here before it searches for a suitable site for a camp, which will be built by Army engineers.
Now the battalion is busy fortifying the perimeter of the camp, a wide-open expanse that looks out toward a busy highway -- something that makes Spc. Bridget Novak very uneasy.
"When we're out here looking at what our position would be, it's scary," said Specialist Novak, who works for a secretary for an Owings Mills accounting firm. "We're right out there."
Although their days begin at 6 a.m. and end about 12 hours later, the guardsmen find time to work out with homemade barbells -- burlap bags filled with sand and tied to the ends of a wooden pole -- or throw horseshoes.
The evenings are spent writing letters home, reading a favorite novel or testing verbal acuity in a game of Pictionary.
With Christmas only two days away, remembrances of a son's teary "I love you," or the lyrics to a traditional holiday song -- "I'll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams" -- seem especially poignant.
But when a false missile alarm Friday morning sent guardsmen running through the camp, yelling "Gas!" and tossing on gas masks, thoughts became more harshly grounded in reality.