Easter offers brief break in troops' desert tedium WAR IN THE GULF

April 01, 1991|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

SOUTHERN IRAQ -- Charlie Company marched the half-mile over shifty sand to get to Easter services. The chaplain, a Southern Baptist, stood on an M-1 tank to deliver the sermon.

His cross hung on the cannon muzzle. Blowing sand filed at his words.

The first Easter after war brought a respite from routine but no salvation from the boredom and the desert.

The men who had fought and won were still here, still eating pre-packaged meals, dreaming all the more about home, a cold beer and a hot shower.

"Just as you were brought through the enemy's breach, Jesus will take you through the breach of death," Capt. Joseph Conn, the chaplain, promised them. The men leaned on their rifles and kicked at the beetles that crawl in the sand.

The sermon was a cool assurance of salvation. The day was a broiling promise of fire and brimstone.

Charlie Company is 94 men, 10 tanks and four Bradley Fighting Vehicles circled around a nameless patch of hot sand in the Iraqi desert some 40 miles south of Nasiriya.

The unit was among the first to run through the Iraqi defenses and swept in an arc to Kuwait before the order to stop fighting took hold. They had fired and been fired on, killed, and heard one of their own men scream, wounded in the foot.

War caused some to reflect.

"I remembered it was Easter as soon as I woke up," said 23-year-old Paul Rivadeniera, a tank gunner from Lake Jackson, Texas. Still in his sleeping bag on the deck of his tank, he offered an Easter prayer.

"I said, 'I don't know what to say to you, God, but thanks for letting us be alive.' "

If not spiritual communication for all, Easter at least brought a hot breakfast. Almost hot. It had been bumped and jarred for nine miles through the desert from the battalion kitchen, and the scrambled eggs and goopy chipped beef had cooled.

But it was a rare, cooked breakfast, better than anotheMeal-Ready-to-Eat with plastic-enshrined portions of the ever-same stuff. "Top," the first sergeant for the company, hawked the breakfast with a carny's enthusiasm.

"Step right up," shouted Sgt. Robert Harn. "Get your orange juice! Get your raisin bran! What a deal we got today!"

At 34, Sergeant Harn is considered a grizzled veteran in this young man's army. The company commander is 30; almost all the men are younger.

"A tanker's life is a good life," Sergeant Harn proclaims. "You're in the biggest, most powerful equipment the government owns. You can do a lot of damage. And you don't have to walk."

But the flip side is the assignments. Tanks are not needed in the rear, so the tank companies bake in the sand at the front.

"You end up being out by yourself a lot," Sergeant Harn said. "Igets lonely. You get a bunch of guys together for so long, tempers get short."

"Top" keeps the damage to a minimum with a stream of barkethreats and gruff orders to anyone in earshot. But the younger men come to him to confide their problems.

He has a soft side. The sergeant recalled his turn at the telephonecenter 10 miles away.

"I talked to my two boys. They're 5 and 8. They told me they were coloring Easter eggs at grandma's house," he said.

The sun announced Easter Day long before its arrival at 5:41 a.m., with a prelude in skynotes of blue and gray and, finally, pink.

The armaments of Charlie Company were arrayed in a broad defensive circle. But they no longer looked like fearsome fighting machines. Laundry was hung to dry on the tank cannon barrels. Duffel bags, belts and helmets were draped on the sides of the vehicles. Tarps hooked to their sides offer shade, and the men dug in under the tarps.

Most still slept on their tanks. There are scorpions and beetles, and on Saturday night one of the tank companies chopped in half a snake they thought was a poisonous viper.

"Hell," said Lt. Michael Homer. "I got pneumonia in basic training, hepatitis in Panama and food poisoning in Honduras. I think I'll try a snake bite this time."

After sunrise, the men wandered over from the tanks to get mail, which came with breakfast from battalion headquarters. Capt. John Green got a letter from his father dated Jan. 11. But most letters are only about a month old.

Some come in pink envelopes with perfume and hearts and sweet suggestions penned on the outside. Those inscriptions were fair game for the hoots of the men gathered for mail call. Then they drifted away to their own messages from home.

One letter arrived with a crayon sun and a child's penciled script addressed "To Any Soldier." Sgt. Jay DeBoer, distributing the mail, kept that for himself. The "any soldier" letters most in demand, he said, are those in a woman's hand with a college return address.

Home, and when they will see it, occupies more than half the conversation. Their 1st Armored Infantry Division -- Big Red One -- is supposed to leave for Fort Riley, Kan., in mid-May. But nobody trusts the date. With the turmoil in Iraq they may be posted on the demarcation line for longer. And the cease-fire agreement still is not signed.

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