The sand under the feet of these soldiers is from the Gulf of Mexico.
And while the 12 Maryland National Guardsmen who are doing their part in Operation Desert Storm at a Florida coast military base can drink a beer in public, celebrate a birthday at a restaurant or go antique-hunting on their day off, the separation from their families is no less painful than that felt by the soldiers serving in Saudi Arabia.
They may not be under attack, but they have missed Christmas at home and their children's birthdays. They don't expect to be home for spring graduations. And their paychecks don't compare with the wages they earned before they were called for active duty in early December.
"If your family is here in Baltimore, Florida is long, long away," said Maj. Jay B. Morton from Martin State Airport, where he commands the 135th Civil Engineering Squadron, the home unit of the 12 guardsmen in Florida.
Just ask Staff Sgt. John L. Miles III. When the Middle River father of three called home recently, his 3-year-old daughter, Ashley, began crying. She wanted to know where he was.
"I had to try and explain to her on the phone that we have to be down here to support the operations while Operation Desert Storm is going on," said Sergeant Miles, 34, who works as a state firefighter at Martin State Airport.
"Here" is Hurlburt Airfield, about five miles west of Fort Walton Beach on the Florida panhandle. The area is known as "Redneck Riviera," a strip between Panama City and Pensacola where people from northern Florida, Mississippi and Alabama have built vacation homes and condominiums. The airfield is on waterfront property owned by Eglin Air Force Base.
The Maryland guardsmen who reported for duty at Hurlburt Dec. 10 are doing the work of base firefighters who have been sent overseas as part of Operation Desert Storm. For seven of the guardsmen, the work is what they do in their full-time jobs as firefighters and paramedics for the state of Maryland, Baltimore City or Baltimore County.
They have inspected base buildings to ensure they meet fire codes, raced to emergency calls from incoming airplanes and mopped up fuel-oil spills. They work one full day and then have another 24 hours off. And while the airfield is bigger than Martin's in Middle River, several of the guardsmen said the air traffic was about the same.
"I think a lot of us would like to be with our brother soldiers and firefighters in the desert, [but] there is a job to be done here also," said Staff Sgt. Steven H. Yealdhall, a 30-year-old Baltimore County firefighter who lives in Bel Air.
The weather in Fort Walton Beach has been too chilly for swimming, but several of the men are learning to scuba dive in the hopes of becoming part of an underwater rescue squad. For Sgt. Richard M. Schenning, 23, of Overlea, the experience has had interesting diversions.
"It's the water. It's crystal clear. It's real blue," said the Baltimore County paramedic, who works in Essex. "Compared to home, you might only be able to see a foot in front of your face. Here, you're able to see up to 100 feet."
The guardsmen learned Jan. 25 that their six-month tour of duty had been extended for another six months.
Although the firefighters are guaranteed jobs when they return home, some worry whether they will be able to resume the same work they left. Sgt. Charles Huber, for example, wondered if he would be able to return to the same firehouse at which he has worked for 18 years. "I like what I do, and it's important to me," said Sergeant Huber, 47, of South Baltimore, who operates a special rescue truck at Baltimore's "Superhouse" fire station at Eutaw and Lombard streets.
Since he left his Aberdeen home, Staff Sgt. William R. Nickerson, 39, has been trying to calm his 12-year-old son, B. J. Late last month, Sergeant Nickerson wrote the boy a letter:
"I know how hard this is for you, B. J. . . . Son, I hope that one day you will understand about patriotism, duty and all those other words that add up to why I am here and you are there," the father wrote. "I wish that things could have been different, but there are some things in life that we cannot control or change. Son, please just try to continue on being the best son a father could ask for, which you are. I love you very much and miss you all the time."