Cheney to update Bush on combat readiness Marylanders adjusting to Saudi desert camp

December 24, 1990|By Jay Merwin | Jay Merwin,Evening Sun Staff

NEAR DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia -- Within an hour after the 5 a.m. call to Moslem prayer, the 400th Military Police Battalion camp stirs to the bark of a rowdy marching cadence as they perform their daily calisthenics.

Among the members of the 400th who will spend Christmas here are Baltimore firefighters, police officers from Baltimore and Prince George's counties and Ocean City and other Marylanders who normally hold down all sorts of civilian jobs.

They are National Guard members and reservists whose units were called up in November. They landed in Saudi Arabia Dec. 9.

Ronald Raab Jr., from Glen Burnie, carries a negative of the sonogram image of the baby his wife is carrying, but he hesitates to say more. "We try to stay away from talking about home," he said yesterday. "You're here."

Numbering about 700, the MP battalion is drawn from Guard and reserve units from four states, including units based in Towson, Salisbury and Fort Meade in Maryland. Their mission is to guard prisoners of war.

The 300 Marylanders sleep 10 to an 8-foot by 24-foot barracks room intended for six. Most of their meals are squeezed cold from heavy olive-drab plastic bags.

Free time is for washing clothes and drying them under an 80-degree sun. The soldiers are careful to take in their laundry before it becomes matted with flies.

Until war and prisoners come, the MPs spend most of their working hours digging bunkers and foxholes to defend their camp.

Situated near Dhahran, the camp is bounded on two sides by the highway to Kuwait and by an access road and an oasis village. The location troubles many of the soldiers encamped here.

"If a terrorist wanted to hit this place, they could do it with no problem at all," said Specialist Aaron Smothers, a Baltimore firefighter, as he looked up from digging a foxhole in the sand and scrub. "I feel like it's a hostile area."

Just last week, two Saudis got out of their car and approached in a menacing way as Smothers and a friend tried to call home from a public pay phone near the camp. Smothers reached into his jacket as if to draw a gun he didn't actually have. The two men left.

Smothers said he had practiced that bluff "a lot of times" whenever he felt threatened as a teen-ager growing up in Edmondson Village in West Baltimore.

On the other side of camp, in a sandbag bunker the size of a small walk-in closet, Specialist Quinten Heyward of Prince George's County wished he had ammunition in the M-60 machine gun instead of in a box beside him. The machine gun was pointed toward the access road, where he was watching for any vehicles trying to forcibly enter the camp.

"They still say there's no threat, but all that can change like that," Heyward said, snapping his fingers. "These trucks could turn off the road in a heartbeat."

But as far as Maj. Ben Overbey and the others in command can gauge it, the threat is a slight one so that all weapons are kept unloaded and only those soldiers on guard duty carry ammunition. The policy is to avoid any unnecessary firing of weapons, but that could change as the perception of a threat from terrorists or infiltrators changes, said Overbey, who is from Gaithersburg.

"I've got a lot of troops here who imagine a mad, rabid Arab ready to come over and sock them in the head with a scimitar," he said, adding that scorpions, snakes and wild dogs encountered on the way to the shower or the latrine have posed the bigger threat so far.

Some of the women in the camp say they are also on guard against Saudi men.

"You get more propositions here than you do at home in a bar on Friday night," said Laura Clark, of Westminster, who is a Baltimore County police officer.

"You never walk down the streets of Baltimore alone, and you don't do it here," said Terry Huber of Parkville, who works with the National Guard detachment at the Dundalk Marine Terminal.

Here at the camp, women walk in pairs to the latrines, which are wooden stalls with screens.

Several soldiers spoke of one woman who reportedly was accosted and fondled by a Saudi man after she had taken off her camouflage jacket to work in her T-shirt. That exposure, in a society where most women cover all but their eyes in black robes, apparently was interpreted by the Saudi man as a sexual invitation.

The man was one of about a dozen Saudi national guardsmen who lived here before the Americans arrived. Senior personnel in American units, along with the aggrieved female soldier, had lunch with the Saudis to work out cultural misperceptions, said Overbey, who is the operations officer.

The Saudi compound is now cordoned off from the American camp. And the women soldiers are forbidden to remove their jackets during duty hours outside the barracks.

"I'm sure we're in for a few more cultural awakenings here," Overbey said.

Those differences add to the griping that is common to any military post. "Bottom line, I'm over here to kill people. I'm not here to accommodate the locals," said Specialist Gil Vega, a Prince George's County police officer.

In a statement against the Saudi law that bans the public display of non-Islamic religious symbols, Vega had stuck a small crucifix in the band around his helmet. "I guess it's my own little protest," he said.

Sgt. Bernard Williamson, of Baltimore, a mechanic for the state Mass Transit Administration, says he saw worse in Vietnam. "I love it here," he said.

It's an attitude he's adopted for getting through situations. "If I love it," he said, "I can accept it."

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