Saddam says he's ready to talk Protests worry Md. soldiers

December 27, 1990|By Jay Merwin | Jay Merwin,Evening Sun Staff

EASTERN SAUDI ARABIA -- Some of the soldiers in Saudi Arabia say they know from the "Dear Soldier" cards and care packages inundating them from America that they have public support. They also say they are aware that others at home are protesting their deployment.

"I'm willing to die. We have something at stake here," Sgt. Richard Mastrangeld said this week. He just hopes the American public won't turn against him as it once did against the soldiers who fought in Vietnam.

There were signs of such disillusionment when Mastrangeld went home to Manchester in Carroll County, Md., for Thanksgiving, just before he left for Saudi Arabia. He saw people demonstrating outside the local library against deployment of American forces.

"It affected me because that's where I live. What should I expect when I go back there?" he asked. "Will they call us baby-killers all over again?"

Mastrangeld is one of about 300 Marylanders stationed in Eastern Saudi Arabia in National Guard and Reserve units that have joined others from other states as the 400th Military Police Battalion.

Many of the soldiers at the camp say they don't want to be here, but believe their presence has a duty and a purpose.

"None of us like it here. But we're here," said Sgt. John Heavener, who is a meat cutter in Baltimore. "I feel like I belong here. I'm part of something very large," he said, referring to the stated American purpose of dislodging Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's forces from Kuwait.

"The man should not get away with this," Heavener said.

Before leaving Oxon Hill, Md., for Saudi Arabia, Spec. James McCain saw National Guardsmen on television talk shows explaining why they were refusing active duty.

McCain doesn't want to be here, either. He even refused Christmas festivities at the camp because it "reminds me too much of Christmas" at home.

But McCain didn't resist deployment. He wants those who did to pay back the education benefits they received for Guard duty before they were called up.

Watching those who resisted deployment had an odd effect. "It made me feel better," McCain said, "because at least I went ahead, to go through with it."

Spec. Aaron Smothers, a former Marine from Oliver Street in East Baltimore, had no reservations about duty in Saudi Arabia. Anywhere in the world, "if there's a need to be there, I want to be there," he said. "I'm proud to be here."

Smothers only worries that the camp is vulnerable to terrorist attacks from the nearby highway. His company commander, Capt. Anthony Powell, is concerned about it, too.

"There are individuals right now who may think morale is not too good because of this location," Powell said.

The battalion is expecting orders soon, probably on two hours' notice, to move somewhere closer to the border of occupied Kuwait, where it could be needed to guard captured Iraqi soldiers.

Meanwhile, camp commanders are developing a standard operating procedure in case of an alert for a poison gas-bearing missile, Powell said.

The need for a procedure became apparent last week, Powell said, when U.S. soldiers detected an Israeli missile test and put troops here on alert. The missile was mistaken for one coming from Iraq.

Before that incident, Powell said, there were "no criteria put out -- for what to do in [an] alert. You had people running to the perimeter. What are you going to do, shoot the [missile] as it comes in?"

Nevertheless, Powell believes, his troops are "ready as we can be for what we're trained for."

Many in the battalion have seen active duty before, but fewer are experienced in combat.

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