Uncertainty at battle's edge

Anxiety: U.S. soldiers awaiting possible orders to attack Iraq are engaged in a war of nerves.

March 08, 2003|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CAMP PENNSYLVANIA, Kuwait - The young private with thick glasses joined the Army after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. As he saw it, the country needed another front-line soldier, not a film student making music videos in California.

Now Pvt. Darren Takayesu, 22, sits in the Kuwaiti desert waiting and worrying. He says he has no second thoughts, but neither does he have much experience. He finished basic training in mid-December, and when he tried to use night vision goggles he walked into a tree.

The veteran sergeant has been in the Army 16 years now. The endless sea of sand here looks familiar. He waited in Saudi Arabia for a half-year before the 1991 gulf war began and sneaked into Iraq on a mission two days before the ground war.

Now Sgt. 1st Class Todd Svenson, 34, sits in the Kuwaiti desert waiting and worrying. He is not so concerned for himself but wonders how his platoon members, some just 18, will respond in battle. Basics are key, he says, and some new soldiers have had scant time to train.

The U.S. military, with a force in the Persian Gulf approaching 250,000 troops, has largely erased its bad Vietnam-era image at home. It has recast itself as an unbeatable fighting force that loses few soldiers, thanks in part to the success of the 1991 gulf war.

But nothing changes one sobering fact: For infantrymen with rifles it comes down to firing, and ducking, whizzing bullets.

"I'm scared, trying not to be," Takayesu said pleasantly while sitting in a dusty tent at this base camp 30 miles from Iraq. "The one thing they tell me, keep moving. If you hesitate you could wind up dead."

Takayesu's trepidation is easy to understand. He did not join his unit of the 101st Airborne Division until Jan. 15 and has never even flown in the Black Hawk helicopters that could soon take him to battle. The prospect of chemical weapons worries him, and so does the prospect of fighting in Baghdad.

Veteran soldiers and officers obviously want the troops they command to be ready for battle, and they intend to train them hard in the desert. But that is not to say anyone wants the men to be cowboys, no matter their experience.

"I get a lot of, `Oh, I'm ready to go to war,'" said Sgt. Maj. Thomas Woodhams. "Maybe that's how they deal with it, but they should be careful what they wish for. There ain't nothing glamorous about war. In fact, the last one wishing for war should be the soldier. He has to bear the wrath of it."

All the same, said Lt. Col. Ed Palekas, a battalion commander, soldiers are here because they signed up for the Army. It's not as if anyone drafted them. "They join with a purpose," Palekas said. "They know what they want."

Svenson thought he knew what he wanted when he joined the Army at age 19. He would serve four years, go to college and then work for the family chrome-plating business.

He never left. When President George Bush led a coalition to push Iraq out of Kuwait, Svenson was part of an Army long-range surveillance team sent into Iraq to check whether bombs had taken out bridges.

When Svenson's Black Hawk blew an engine, the mission was scrubbed. By the time he was about to go on a new sortie, a cease-fire had been declared. The war was already over.

"Part of me was happy - we'd finally be going home," Svenson said, a wad of chewing tobacco pushing out his lower lip. "The other half of me was disappointed. We kind of got short-changed."

Svenson remembers the unease he felt 12 years ago, an echo of what today's young soldiers are saying. "There was kind of a nervous anxiety," he said. "Everyone was scared, not terrified scared, but nervous about the unknown."

The battle plan this time around would be considerably more complicated, adding to the uncertainties soldiers face. For Svenson, the question is whether the 30 men in Platoon 2 will use their weapons properly and communicate in combat.

"My main concern is that we are masters of the basics," he said. "I don't think anybody is as prepared as they'd want to be."

That includes Takayesu.

He was about to start his junior year at Chapman University, in Orange, Calif., when terrorists flew hijacked jets into the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

As he sat glued to a television set, he began pondering his goal of becoming a Hollywood movie producer. The chance to make big money appealed as much as the creative side, and at the time it seemed too selfish. He resolved to enlist for three years, shocking his parents in Hawaii.

After researching the military he picked the 101st Airborne, figuring it would stand a good chance of seeing combat. The war in Afghanistan was long over by the time he got to basic training, but he finished just in time to be deployed to Kuwait.

"I didn't even play sports in high school; this is very foreign," he said, as a gust of wind blew sand through the doors of the canvas tent that's now home to him and 65 other soldiers.

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