Civilian skills come into play for desert duty

December 31, 1990|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Sun Staff Correspondent

EASTERN SAUDI ARABIA -- For Sgt. Brenda Bidwell, the battle in the Saudi desert has already begun. Disease-bearing agents have overrun her camp, threatening the intestinal well-being of every soldier here.

Since her military police battalion arrived in Saudi Arabia from Fort Meade Dec. 9, Sergeant Bidwell has come face-to-face with the enemy -- a variety of Muscidae, more commonly known to Brenda Bidwell as "filth flies." Last week, she received a special package to complete her arsenal of defensive weapons.

"My Christmas present was fly bait," said Sergeant Bidwell, the preventive medicine specialist who oversees health and sanitary conditions for the 400th Military Police Battalion stationed here as part of Operation Desert Shield. "The filth fly is our No. 1 problem because they go into the latrines and lie on infected areas. They are the transmission" agent for disease.

An industrial hygienist by profession, Sergeant Bidwell is one example of how many of the reservists and National Guardsmen in the 400th Battalion are applying the skills of private life to public duty. Sergeant Bidwell, who worked at Fort Detrick in Frederick before being called to active duty, isn't the only example:

* Sgt. Hoy Lesniowski, who operates a janitorial service from his Maryland home, coordinated the cleanup of the 400th Battalion's desert camp -- once used to house foreign petroleum workers. Among the work crew supervisors on that project was Spc. Willie Nicholson, the head of housekeeping at Salisbury State University.

* Sgt. Bryan D. Crockett, the vice president of finance for a hotel management company in Salisbury, is in charge of the ordering and distribution of food for the 200th Military Police Company of Salisbury, one of two Maryland National Guard units in the 400th Battalion.

* Master Sgt. Eric Marsh, a builder from Belmont, N.H., is the head of the engineering unit of the Fort Meade-based battalion. When the battalion commander wanted to provide a latrine for a group of Bedouin Saudi national guardsmen who live on the camp site, Sergeant Marsh and his crew got out their plywood and electric saws.

The men and women serving with the 400th Battalion are among an estimated 67,000 reservists and National Guardsmen called to active duty as part of Operation Desert Shield, according to Maj. Doug Hurt, a spokesman at the Pentagon. They represented about 25 percent of the more than 260,000 U.S. soldiers in the Persian Gulf late last month, the spokesman said. Although citizen soldiers, many have previous experience in the military.

The majority of the reservists and guardsmen -- like the Marylanders here -- are serving in non-combat units, Major Hurt said.

The key mission of the 400th Battalion is to operate and staff prisoner-of-war camps in the gulf. Back home, many of the battalion's soldiers are police detectives, patrol officers, correctional officers and security guards.

"One of my company commanders is a bounty hunter," said Lt. Col. Cotton W. S. Bowen, who heads the 400th. "We're a valuable asset if the combat forces take a large amount of prisoners. It's our job to take those prisoners off their hands."

Sgt. Ernest V. Roe, 32, of Baltimore will be ready for the task. A member of the Towson-based 290th Military Police Company, Sergeant Roe had been on the job at the Maryland House of Corrections in Jessup only two weeks when he was told to report for active duty Nov. 15.

The moniker given to Sergeant Roe and other National Guardsmen -- "citizen soldier" -- fits.

"You don't have to be a 365-day-a-year soldier to know the job and know your responsibility and have the leadership skills to perform those duties," said Colonel Bowen, the battalion commander and self-described "paper pusher."

The tough part for the citizen soldier, according to Colonel Bowen, is "making the mental transition from being a civilian to a soldier."

That, he said, includes "getting used to the idea that you don't have a five-day workweek. . . . On a five-day-a-week job, you can always quit. Here, you don't have that option."

Colonel Bowen, a personnel specialist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said he was fortunate to have Sergeant Bidwell, the preventive medicine specialist, on his staff.

"She occupies a very important position within the battalion," he said. "If it keeps one person from getting sick, much less a whole unit, it's worth it."

In her professional life, Sergeant Bidwell, 36, of Manassas, Va., does occupational safety and health inspections. In Saudi Arabia, she has trained field sanitation and food preparation teams, ensuring that the latrines and mess kitchens are maintained properly. She checks the water quality to make sure that water delivered by a private contractor is clean enough to drink.

She tests air quality and determines how much water a soldier needs to drink and how long he can work in the desert heat. She determines how best to combat the flies and protect against snake and scorpion bites.

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