DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia -- The first week of war against Iraq has forced the best and the bravest of U.S. military men and women in this region to confront their fears and seek solace in their mastery of the weapons in their arsenal.
Much of the earlier bravado has been replaced by sober contemplation about the ever-present danger of artillery barrages, anti-aircraft fire or missile attack. Foremost in many minds is the possibility that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein may strike with chemical or biological agents.
"He has some fearsome weapons, whether he has the skill to use them or not," said Lt. Col. John Vines, a battalion commander in the 82nd Airborne Division.
As his infantry unit advanced north, Staff Sgt. Timothy Alspach, 33, of Groveport, Ohio, confessed, "I've gone over my equipment 100 times. I got a lot of quiet time to reflect, think about what's going to happen, how it's going to go down.
"I wonder how I'm going to react to seeing one of my best buddies dying. It's scary to think about."
In dozens of conversations with war correspondent pools throughout the combat zone, the grunts, air jockeys and other soldiers have seemed more willing to express their fears now that war is under way. Many of them have already been exposed to hostile fire, and most have heard or seen the newscasts about the U.S. pilots that Iraq holds captive.
Capt. Mike O'Dowd, 27, of Bergenfield, N.J., has been flying bombing missions over Iraq in his A-10 Thunderbolt.
When he saw Iraqi videotape of a fellow pilot who had been captured, his first thought was, "My God, this poor guy has been traumatized and has been beaten. And that could happen to me."
Captain O'Dowd said he would steel himself in his cockpit and concentrate on his mission. "The fear, you just put it somewhere back there behind the adrenalin," he said. "You let the adrenalin take over."
At the forward outpost of the 2nd Marine Division, Cpl. Michael Branch, 24, of Glen Burnie has kept busy preparing for the coming ground offensive.
Yesterday's schedule included yet another briefing, illustrated with models and diagrams in the sand, on how to breach the walls and trenches the Iraqis have built in the Kuwaiti desert.
"A lot of people want to go up and do their part," he said. "But when we have to realize that now it's a real war, it makes us think."
Across the northern Saudi desert, Army Spc. Eric Logan, 22, of Burbank, Ill., was among those thinking about living and dying.
"Having it break out into war has changed us some," he said
from Log Base Charlie, a logistics post for Army engineers. "I can see it in the other guys. We joke around, but it's a little different now, a little more serious.
"As for me, I've got a lot of things I want to do when I get back," he said. "There's college, maybe some classes in photography. Maybe some music courses. I want to learn how to scuba dive. All these things I sort of put aside before.
"Now I'm thinking about them again. I don't know where to begin."
Near Task Force Taro -- so named because the units came from the Kaneohe Marine Corps Air Station in Hawaii -- Iraqis have been firing four to five rockets daily, aimed mainly at Marine camps and the nearby city of Khafji.
"The first and third nights, the flash and bang was just outside the perimeter," said Cpl. Mark Watson, 22, a radio operator from Sevierville, Tenn. "It shook the tents and everything. Everybody was pretty nervous."
Because of the flak, Marines are lining up at least five yards apart on the chow line so that if an undetected rocket strikes, fewer of them would be killed.
"That's the one thing that really frightens you -- artillery and rockets -- because there's nothing you can do except bury yourself and pray," said Col. John Admire, the task force commander.
Even life in the rear echelon has been unnerving. Military personnel are facing almost nightly volleys of Scud missiles.
"You feel real confident when you talk about fear, but then it really happens, [and] it takes a lot of adjusting and adapting," said Army Capt. Susan Robertson, 28, of Atlanta, commanding officer of the 659th Maintenance Battalion.
"I think we've all aged over the last week," she said.
Army Col. Jack Stevenson, 41, a Salisbury resident who commands the 189th Maintenance Battalion, said the success of Patriot missile defenses against incoming Scuds has been a morale booster.
"We have been a real cheering section for these Patriot batteries here. We are close enough to have seen the airbursts and hear them."
A Navy psychiatrist accompanying the 2nd Marine Division declared members of the unit to be "remarkably well-adjusted."
But he said he already knows what common malady will afflict the troops when the fiercest ground battles begin.
"Fear. Nothing more complicated than fear," he said.