Ill. guard unit waits uneasily to leave the gulf WAR IN THE GULF

March 19, 1991|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

NORTHERN KUWAIT -- The convoys rumble by on the road toward home, passing a small wind-swept camp filled with soldiers who want to go with them.

The 233rd Illinois National Guard watches in envy as the allied pullback sends lines of trucks and tanks past their tents on the road leading from Iraq.

Their orders are to stay put here in the sand, at least for now. With the war over but for the paperwork, the waiting is particularly hard.

"Everybody asks every day: 'When are we going home,' " said the commander of the unit, Lt. Kevin Keen. "I think morale will dip down a little bit the longer we wait. But our turn will come."

The Pentagon has cautioned that it will take time to ship home an army that reached the size of the peak force in Vietnam. Those in this camp understand that.

But the moral adrenalin that pumped them up before the war is drained. The nights now seem longer, the days more monotonous, and the sand seems even grittier, they say.

"We did our job. It's time to pack up," said Sgt. Kenneth Barry, a 48-year-old Illinois state trooper. "It's time to go home."

But the unit waits, 153 men and 16 women camped in the desert along the main road to Iraq. Their home now is a study in brown: Patch-brown tents shudder in the wind and tug at tent lines anchored into the brown desert with sandbags. Tan-brown Humvees, the newfangled jeep with a low and wide hermit-crab stance, are parked between the tents.

The only color comes from two U.S. flags and an Illinois Guard banner, high aloft and held stiff by the unrelenting breeze.

This was an unusual war for the large number of reservists and National Guardsmen who were plucked from their civilian lives and sent overseas. Most went willingly. But some in this unit are surprised that they have not been sent back before the regular Army units.

"I really think it was the right thing to do to come here," said Spc. Robert Aper, a 20-year-old cook from Normal, Ill. "It was for a purpose. But now that it's over, let's go home and celebrate the victory."

The 233rd Illinois National Guard is a military police company, and its main job in the war was moving Iraqi prisoners of war to Saudi Arabia.

"We've got no war stories to tell" said Spc. Rusty Kirby, 33. "What are we going to do, lie? We just did our job. The grunts and the artillerymen did their job. We were just part of the force."

If they have any question whether others feel the guardsmen did an important job, they need only to call home. "It's really good to call home and have people tell you how everybody is wearing yellow ribbons and flying flags," said Specialist Kirby. "It makes you feel good."

They can call now. When they get time off, if they can hustle the 35 miles south to Kuwait City and wait in a line that sometimes stretches three or four hours, the guardsmen can get 10 minutes on an AT&T satellite phone.

The 233rd National Guard unit was called up for duty Nov. 25. After training and a welcome Christmas leave, they left for the Middle East in early January. Springfield, Ill., gave them a rousing send-off.

"Goodie boxes" from home still flood in when the mail catches up, and there always is a stack of letters from loved ones and strangers.

"I picked up a letter addressed 'To any soldier,' said Sgt. Gary Skaggs, a 43-year-old supply sergeant. "I got to reading it, and it was an 11-year-old girl who lives just a block from me."

In the war, they processed more than 4,000 Iraqi prisoners, most of them sad and bedraggled soldiers who seemed happy to surrender, say the guardsmen. The work was hectic. But now life has slowed down. They get a few late prisoners -- 30 came in from the border last night. But mostly they control convoy traffic on the road near their camp.

The big mess tent is the center of social life. There is usually coffee and snacks there, and the gasoline-fueled stoves keep it toasty and warm inside.

Yesterday, the cooks were happy. They got supplies from the rear to put on a meal guaranteed to stop the grousing: a crate of frozen steaks for the grill and dehydrated shrimp that boiled up plump and tasty.

Specialist Aper, a muscular young man with the military version of a Mohawk haircut, happily wrapped 170 potatoes in foil for the oven.

"We're having a great day. We're finally able to cook them something," he said. "We've been out here just boiling water, and we hate it. We want to prepare something for them."

Specialist Kirby volunteered to help, even though he was not assigned to KP duty. "It's something to do," he explained. "If you sit in your tent, all you do is sit there and think about home.

"It's hard to believe you can be here with 170 soldiers and still be lonely," he said. "I've got 15 people in my tent next to my cot, and I still get lonely. When I do, I just try to get out by myself and sort things out. If you have to you can have a good cry."

Specialist Kirby is a correctional officer in an Illinois prison.

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