The art of the deal in the Saudi sand PERSIAN GULF SHOWDOWN

February 08, 1991|By Chris Hedges | Chris Hedges,New York Times

IN SAUDI ARABIA -- Vast military supply dumps have been built in the northern Saudi desert, spawning a subculture of military operatives who barter, pilfer and cajole to get needed items for their units.

Army officials recently announced they were missing 50 trucks, but officers in one 10-acre supply depot dismissed the figure as a minuscule percentage of the equipment that has ended up in unintended hands.

"Fifty trucks is nothing in this kind of operation," said one battalion supply officer who, like most supply officers, asked not to be identified. "There is so much coming in and going out no one can keep track of it."

Scrounging and scavenging has developed into an art form because the bureaucracy that stands between front-line troops and supply depots often means standard written requests take months to fill. And units are finding that desert deployment brings with it unforeseen needs for special equipment at a time when normal channels are very slow.

To front-line officers, the most adept scavengers have become vital to the task of getting needed supplies that are bogged down in the system.

"I thought they just provided you with everything," said Lt. Timothy J. Grenier. "I wasn't prepared for how things work out here."

Legends have already been made by enterprising soldiers.

"You have to have larceny in your heart," said Gunnery Sgt. Douglas W. Killblane, who has carted back truckloads of supplies to his unit. "Most people go to prison for this. I get promoted."

In theory, soldiers are subject to military discipline for "borrowing" the items they need. In practice, swaps and even theft are often winked at as one of the inescapable sideshows of wartime.

One Marine officer recently climbed into an empty five-ton truck at a port and drove it, with great acclaim, to his unit. A lieutenant who is the supply officer for an infantry battalion managed to place double orders for camouflage fatigues.

As a result, the 1,500 men in his battalion were given one set of fatigues before they left the United States and another set when they arrived in Saudi Arabia.

The extra uniforms, which are in high demand, have been valuable collateral. Through the lieutenant's deft maneuvering, his battalion has not lacked for many services or material since its arrival.

When the battalion needed a forklift to unload boxes from containers, the supply officer set out to find a forklift driver who was wearing a standard green army uniform.

"We found the guy who had what we needed and said, 'Hey, let's make a deal,' " this supply officer said.

The ability to get front-line units what they need is a source of pride to supply people like Killblane, who have become full-time scroungers for their units.

"The professional pride of a supply officer is to get the best possible deal in a trade," said Lt. John R. Dysart.

Killblane, widely acknowledged as one of the finest procurers of supplies in the American forces in the gulf, has managed to build huge stockpiles for his battalion, often by telling moving tales about the suffering of his unit to the troops who release material from the ships.

The gunnery sergeant recently went into an office run by reservists from Georgia at the King Fahd Commercial Port. On the door outside the reservists had hung a sign reading: "No deals. No mooching. No bargains. Go away."

Below the sign was written: "No paperwork, no gear."

Undaunted by the austere warning, Killblane, an Oklahoma native, sauntered into the office, affecting a thick Southern drawl to appeal to the reservists' regional loyalty. He said his men had not been able to shower for more than 40 days, did not have enough water to drink and ran out of fuel in the desert.

The sergeant walked out with a shipment of iron rods, which his company needed to fix up the backs of its jeeps to carry water and gasoline.

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