WITH THE U.S. MARINES IN SOUTHERN AFGHANISTAN -- Pilot and painter, Marine Capt. Alex Fulford is girding for war.
Yesterday, as the Marines nearly doubled the number of attack and support helicopters on hand, Fulford arrived after dawn at this desolate desert airbase aboard a feared weapon in America's arsenal, the Cobra helicopter gunship.
There was a different look to this batch of sleek and lethal gray gunships, though, as Fulford held court by one on which he painted a bald eagle and American flag.
The nose art was a throwback to World War II. But the appearance of the Cobras and other helicopters poised on a makeshift helipad in the sand sends a message to America's current enemy, the Taliban:
"Read the writing on the wall," Fulford said. "You can run, but you can't hide. The strongholds they have left are getting smaller. The noose is tightening. We will have mission success."
All around this base there were unmistakable signs of a buildup as Marines gather within striking distance of the Taliban's spiritual home and last stronghold, the besieged city of Kandahar.
The airstrip was beginning to fill with the latest arrivals of hardware and manpower flown from the decks of the USS Bataan, the floating home to the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit in the Arabian Sea.
The new arrivals added to the collection of Cobras, all-purpose Hueys, CH-46E Sea Knight troop carriers and CH-53E Super Stallion heavy-lift helicopters.
Early today the Marines boosted their firepower, bringing in additional light armor vehicles and a platoon of hunter-killer teams from the 26th MEU. They use Humvees carrying TOW missiles and .50-caliber machine guns.
U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force personnel work here. There are liaison officers from Britain, Australia and Germany, which has begun to deploy troops on a combat mission outside the country for the first time since World War II.
Talk of what may come fills conversations around the base and was even part of the homily at yesterday's Roman Catholic service presided over by Maj. Beau Higgins, 33, a Roman Catholic eucharistic minister who set up an altar on the lid of a metal supply box balanced between two stacks of lumber. Worshippers stood in the dirt. Some wore flak vests. All were armed. They stood about half a football field away from an abandoned mosque.
After the service, Higgins, a New Orleans native who is the 15th MEU's intelligence officer, spoke with reporters about what could lie ahead and said the fight "seems to be reaching a culmination point."
"I thought Kandahar would fall a week ago," he added. "Obviously, it hasn't. Things kind of slowed down. The Taliban folks there are still in control. But you have a lot of forces at play, opposition groups coming from the north down, from the southeast up, and us coming potentially from where we are."
The new pilots on hand would like to play a role in squeezing the Taliban. Pilots such as Fulford, a 30-year-old from Tucker, Ga., who's as sleek and daring as the helicopter he flies. Most of his family hails from Havre de Grace, where his grandmother Roberta Kimball lives.
Fulford stood by his Cobra and beamed in obvious pride over the abilities of the gunship, which can fly 200 miles an hour 20 feet above the ground, firing missiles and a 20 mm cannon.
"It's the sports car of helicopters," he said. "The 53s [Super Stallions] are the Cadillacs, the Hueys are like Jeeps, the Sea Knight is a Honda Accord."
Fulford said flying a Cobra "isn't all that hard."
"It's a rush," he said. "It requires a lot of concentration. You don't want a dune to come up and bite you. Staying low is staying alive."
But landing can be difficult, especially in the talcum-like desert sand.
The pilots' greatest fear is a brownout, which can occur when helicopter rotors whip the sand into an angry, blinding storm.
Those who arrived here the first night were taken aback by the brownouts.
"We've landed in dust before, but it seems more significant here," said Capt. Nevin Marr, 28, of Denison, Texas, who flew in some of the Marines aboard a Super Stallion when the base was seized.
En route to Afghanistan, Marr said, all he saw in the desert were nomads' camps. Other pilots saw camels.
Only last month, Maj. Richard Caputo, 37, of Providence, R.I., was at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in Southern California. He made the long hop to Afghanistan largely aboard a giant C-5 Galaxy cargo plane. Yesterday, he flew the last leg to Afghanistan aboard his Super Stallion.
"There are many, many miles of absolutely nothing, and then there are fires," he said. "We know there are people. We see them and avoid them. Within 10 miles, you see the lights of the desert strip and you know you made it."
The desert seems an expanse of nothingness. Aside from the airstrip and base compound, there isn't much more here.
"If you had to describe the middle of nowhere, this is it," Fulford said.
But from this base, Marines could go against the Taliban. Even though the Taliban have been forced to beat a hasty retreat to their stronghold of Kandahar, they still possess military assets, including armored vehicles.
Yet, time could be running out on the Taliban.
"They still have teeth," Fulford said. "We have pliers."