Soldiers hurry up and wait


Kuwait: As U.S. forces amass near the Iraqi border, the atmosphere is a strange mix of comfort and anxiety.

March 06, 2003|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

CAMP PENNSYLVANIA, Kuwait - A dull line of sand extending to the horizon is broken only in spots by clusters of large white canvas tents pitched in neat rows.

A host of American soldiers walks around: The soldiers have machine guns slung over one shoulder, gas masks attached to the left hip. The Iraqi border is 30 miles away.

The Army's 101st Airborne Division is not in southwest Kentucky anymore.

They're settled in here, a barren, dusty square mile that will be home to thousands of soldiers from the 101st and other divisions until orders arrive to move deeper into the desert toward Iraq or, theoretically, to return to Fort Campbell, Ky.

The camp straddles a figurative line between war and peace. There are volleyball nets and basketball hoops. But there are also sandbagged concrete bunkers in case of Scud missile attacks and the distant, concussive thuds of artillery practice.

It's fitting that the camp - along with cousins Camp New York, Camp New Jersey and the like - has a designated "mayor" whose other job is lieutenant colonel. This is a small city under martial law. Near the chow hall is a broadcasting station for U.S. propaganda, part of the psychological operations effort aimed at Iraqi radio listeners.

Even as commanders hold closed-tent meetings to discuss possible war, grunts are living the summer camp life. Some gather at night to watch movies such as Army of Darkness on DVD drives in laptops powered by diesel generators that hum nonstop outside tents.

Not only do soldiers get bacon and eggs for breakfast and hamburgers and hot dogs for dinner, they have a shower - albeit a grimy one, too. As a bonus, the weather is mild, 80 degrees during the day and 50 at night. The frequent breeze is pleasant despite the sand it kicks up.

"I think we're a little too comfortable," says Spc. Paul Yoder, 21. "I'm laying here reading a book, and 30 miles away there is a guy who wants to kill me because I have an American flag on my shoulder. It's a false sense of security."

But troops are not outwardly edgy. "Not everyone is walking around with a sense of doom," says Pfc. Landan Fisk, 21.

That is a balance commanders say they are aiming to strike. They want troops to be ready but also rested, physically and emotionally. It's been a concern since Saturday, when soldiers began their odyssey halfway around the globe.

The journey for the 101st's 3rd Battalion of the 327th Infantry Regiment starts that afternoon in the parking lot behind company headquarters at Fort Campbell.

There, the Army begins proving the axiom all soldiers know: hurry up and wait.

Before anyone even gets to the plane for the 18-hour flight on Chalk 48 (chalk being jargon for flight), there's 10 hours of waiting, punctuated by checking out weapons - principally black M-4 rifles - loading bags, updating wills, saying final farewells to family and getting last-minute anthrax shots.

They case the colors, a solemn ceremony in which the battalion's flags are packed up for the trip overseas. They mill about the parking lot, holding oblivious babies or kissing nervous-looking wives or stroking the heads of tearful girlfriends. They listen to their leaders.

"We're going to do our job," Lt. Col. Ed Palekas, the battalion's commander, tells his stone-faced troops and their wet-eyed family members. "Then we're going to come home."

Charlie Company's First Sgt. William "Wild Bill" Karpowecz, 19-year veteran, runs the show.

He bellows orders, cracks jokes and scolds laggards in a raspy smoker's voice. A cigarette dangles from his mouth, a wad of chewing tobacco jams against his gums.

A lean 6-feet, 148 pounds, Karpowecz performs his job with gusto. At one point he clambers atop a pile of wooden crates and says, quietly, "I've always wanted to do this." Then, looking like a maestro in desert fatigues, he barks his next command: "Listen up!"

At 5 p.m., a pair of metal-sided trucks backs up and troops begin piling their gear in back, first the bulging duffels and then the rucksacks so weighted down that some soldiers stagger.

At 6:20, as family members fade away and men sprawl on their backs, 37-year-old Karpowecz revs up again. It's time for the manifest, for the 1st sergeant to call out names at the top of his lungs.

Sgt. Major Thomas Woodhams, who holds a comparable job for the 3rd Battalion, says Karpowecz has the right style.

"You've got to be loud, strict. You're the father of the company and all them soldiers are your sons. The commander commands the company, the first sergeant runs it."

After rattling through the roster and checking gas masks and other gear items, Karpowecz sees something he doesn't like. Someone has a racy magazine, prohibited for soldiers going to an Arab country.

"Give up the porn," comes the call.

Spc. Kurt Bensheimer, a tall, bespectacled Charlie Company member from Indianapolis, reluctantly reaches into his carry-on bag - his "assault pack" - and produces six copies of Playboy.

"Anybody want to get a last peek?" he calls out. "I picked all the best issues."

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