In Kuwait, true grit isn't asset

SUN JOURNAL

Sandstorms: For U.S. soldiers, the desert's frequent flare-ups are an omnipresent menace - limiting travel and encrusting just about everything.

March 10, 2003|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CAMP PENNSYLVANIA, Kuwait - They have killed one soldier's portable CD player and coated a high-ranking officer in grit. They have forced troops sitting inside tents to wrap brown kerchiefs around their mouths and noses.

The enemy is everywhere: Fierce sandstorms are besieging this desert military camp 30 miles from Iraq, and there's not much the Army's 101st Airborne Division can do.

The fine particles are inescapable, whether in the jolting gusts that make an ordeal out of a walk to the latrine or in the slow creep that turns a clean cot gray with dust in hours.

"It's worse than rain. You can hide from rain," said Capt. Matthew Gregory, 25, of Charlotte, N.C. "This, it gets into every nook and cranny."

More than a mere annoyance, this blizzard-like tandem of sand and wind might, if it persists, affect how a ground war plays out with Iraq, officers say, by limiting everything from helicopter flights to night-vision goggles.

U.S. forces train in California's Mojave Desert and have experience from the 1991 Persian Gulf war and recent Afghanistan conflict, so they know how blowing sand can clog air filters, overheat engines and damage helicopter rotor blades over time.

They know that if there's war with Iraq, blowing sand could change their travel plans.

The 360 infantry soldiers in Lt. Col. Ed Palekas's 700-man unit must be transported to the battlefield by helicopter or truck. When the desert wind is whipping, such travel can be slow and dangerous. On Feb. 25, a Black Hawk helicopter crashed near here in a sandstorm, killing four.

"Because we're fresh and we want to get this thing done, we could drive through," said Palekas, commander of the division's 3rd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment. "But it would be tough."

The bright side for U.S. forces, Palekas said, is that a sustained stirring of the northwesterly winds known as the shamal would impede Iraqi forces as well.

"That's the great equalizer," he said.

To date, the sand's primary effect on Palekas has been to bug him. The other day he had the misfortune to step from the shower freshly scrubbed only to be pelted by stinging - and sticking - sand.

"You get that coating of mud," he said with a thin smile, sitting in his dusty tent with cots and electricity but only a canvas flap for a door.

Usually the sand's effect is more subtle but no less insidious. Soldiers at the camp wake up with grit in their teeth. What hair they have takes on a straw-like consistency. Their skin gets chalky.

Some of their accoutrements - including one corporal's $80 compact disc player - slowly succumb.

"My hands feel like sandpaper," said Spc. Anthony Wright, a 20-year-old from Essex. "If you use any lotion it'll stick to you. So pretty much you just stay dry, try to ride it out."

But it can get far worse when the winds howl, which has been much of the time lately. Early Friday, several portable toilets toppled over, and tents shook and creaked as sand sifted through cracks.

"Looks like it's starting to fall down," said Lt. Erik Lewis, 26, of Los Angeles after crawling out to inspect the large tent where he and 65 soldiers are living. The tent held.

When it gets bad, only the foolish venture outside without goggles, and it can be hard to see even with them. Chow tents, Scud bunkers, all are barely visible in the monochromatic haze.

Poor weather the other day limited outdoor training, so some platoons held classes on subjects such as how to inject yourself with atropine after suspected exposure to nerve agents.

The sand followed everyone into the tents, though. Soldiers read books with their mouths and noses covered. They quickly ate their MREs, meals-ready-to-eat, to avoid any unwelcome crunchiness. They cleaned their machine guns as many as 10 times.

There are tricks to dealing with the sand. Cleaning weapons with graphite rather than oil keeps sand from sticking. Putting pantyhose over Humvee air filters adds another layer of protection. Smoking in a Scud bunker works just fine.

Despite all the inconveniences, many here seem to take a pleasantly stoic view, just as they did when an order came down to switch tents at 10 p.m. for no apparent reason.

"Can't yell at God about the sand," said Staff Sgt. Jay Stokholm, a 34-year-old gulf war veteran.

That attitude was adopted by Army officials leading a convoy of journalists across the desert late Thursday when a sandstorm flared.

Within minutes, visibility fell to 50 feet or less, and a piece of plastic flying through the air hit a sport utility vehicle in the convoy. A dented old green-and-white bus belonging to the Al-Salem company labored through deepening sand until the convoy was halted.

"We're going to stay hunkered down for quite some time," Sgt. Brian Thomas shouted over the racket. "It's not safe to move further given the drifting and the fact we can't see anything."

The wait ended after 90 minutes, but not before one goggles-clad soldier in the convoy rapped on the SUV's window with an odd request, given the conditions.

"Sorry to bother you, but do you have a cigarette?" asked Spc. Ernest Henry, 20 of Gaithersburg. "I'm more of an occasional smoker. There's nothing else to do out here, so I might as well smoke."

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