IN SAUDI ARABIA -- After buying $156 worth of candy bars, King Edward cigars and Pepsi for his platoon, Sgt. Ted L. Smith walked through the shallow puddles that filled the streets of a northern Saudi border town toward a clothing store.
He entered the store, which had a painted sign out front that read, in shaky English, "Atantion: Here is Atelphone Service."
"This is what I came into town to do," he said as he unclipped his mud-covered web belt and cartridge cases and let them fall to the floor. "I have been thinking about this for a while."
The 30-year-old U.S. Army squad leader braced himself for what has become a painful ritual for troops who soon expect to go into combat -- the final call home.
Soldiers, both men and women, often wait for hours outside the roadside telephone booths marked "International Telephone" or stores that have phones with international lines.
They use credit card numbers to call their spouses, parents and other loved ones, usually collect. By dialing 1-800-100, they can speak with an operator in the United States.
But conversations that had dwelled on mundane affairs -- financial worries, family problems, weather and loneliness -- have taken on a dark air as the soldiers verbalize, many for the first time, about where they want to be buried and what kind of life they want for children they may never see again.
"Hey, what's up?" the sergeant said to his sleepy wife, Wendy, in Panama, where he is based. "Wake up.
"How's the baby?" he asked about his 16-month-old daughter, Amber Elise.
"Are you hanging in there?" he asked.
Sergeant Smith, his face and hands dark brown from six months in the desert, had not spoken to his wife since the first week in January.
"This is probably the last call," he said, his voice dipping almost to a whisper.
"It is good to hear your voice," he said. "Get a grip, get a grip, Wendy. You know me better than that.
"Take it one day at a time," he said softly. "That's what I'm doing. Everything passes. This will pass.
"I love you too, honey," he said, a phrase he would repeat innumerable times throughout the conversation.
"Don't do that now," he said to his distraught wife. "You have got to be hard. I get tired of this, too.
"I read an article about President and Mrs. Bush in that People magazine last night," he said. "Don't show weakness. You've got to stand your ground like President Bush."
The sergeant, who took part in the assault on the army command headquarters in Panama in 1989 as part of the airborne branch of the 193rd Infantry, assured his wife that the battle would closely mirror the attack in Panama.
"I don't underestimate any armed man," he told his wife, "but I am not impressed with the Iraqis. They remind me of the Panama Defense Force. They just have a lot more guns."
His 24-year-old wife, apart from her husband for the last half-year, went into the litany of problems of trying to run a house and raise a child alone.
"Family problems," he said, cupping his hand over the receiver.
Then it came time to deal with the issues that had gone unmentioned in previous letters and calls.
"Whatever happens, keep your chin up, no matter what," he said. "If I get waxed, I'm going to heaven and I'll be waiting for you. I'm not afraid, but I don't want to lose you and Amber.
"Fifty or 60 years, that sounds good to me," he said, responding to his wife's question about how long he wanted to be with her.
"When Amber gets up in the morning, give her a big hug and tell her that Daddy loves her," he said.
The sergeant folded and unfolded a strap on his web belt with his left hand, his fingernails black with dirt. He listened quietly. His wife was asking him where he wanted to be buried.
"Some place close to you," he said, "so you can come with Amber to see me.
"Hey," he said. "I want Amber to go to college.
"Have faith, honey," the sergeant said, "but sometimes things happen that we don't understand. You just have to go on.
"Wendy," he said imploringly, "Wendy."
He waited silently on the line as trucks and jeeps splashed through the puddles outside.
Then the clouds broke as his wife remembered to tell him the latest news, her piercing of their daughter's ears.
"I bet she is pretty," he said.
"Send me a picture with her earrings in."
The shopkeeper came over to tell the sergeant in broken English that he must close his store for noon prayers.
"When it is all said and done, it's just us," he said. "That's what it is all about.
"I love you," he said.
A small pickup truck with a loudspeaker attached to the roof drove slowly by, calling on the few remaining Muslims left in the border town to pray.
"I have to go," he said. "I have a squad to run. Hang on your smiling face, honey.
"I will see you in Fort Campbell. You be there when I get off the plane."