As war looms, stress mounts

The wait: Away from home and family, soldiers work to keep tempers and their fears of what may lie ahead in check.

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

CAMP PENNSYLVANIA, Kuwait - With a chorus of practice artillery rounds booming in the desert, the beaming military chaplain yesterday led 200 members of the Army's 101st Airborne Division in a rousing call for spiritual renewal and release.

"I don't mind going into battle, but I want to make sure God goes into battle with me," Maj. Rodie Lamb preached from a plywood pulpit in his first sermon here, under a large white tent. "You need to know where your help comes from."

For an hour, the soldiers of this new congregation sat on the metal folding chairs, sang, clapped and shouted "Amen," and even cried because these are stressful times. The soldiers, camped 30 miles south of the Iraqi border, are unsure if and when they will go to war, and the uncertainties are as wearing as the sand and the endless bright sun.

There are ample strains and anxieties - about spouses and girlfriends and boyfriends at home, the friction of sleeping, waking and living here with so many fellow soldiers, plus the prospect of war. The tension sometimes pokes through the surface, as happened a few days ago when a sergeant and a private fought each other with fists.

"There are emotions people are not letting out, fears soldiers are keeping inside," said Spc. Ian "Doc" Crews, a 23-year-old medic. "There is stress in not knowing what's happening to us, where we're going. It's crazy."

And it has been only a week since these soldiers left Fort Campbell, Ky., for a deployment that could last a year.

Each soldier has his own way of handling the uncertainties. Some seek solace in church services or Bible study. Some take advantage of the army's "morale, welfare and recreation" programs by lifting weights, playing football or watching movies. Soldiers read, sleep, play cards, sleep again, write letters home. A few visit chaplains, such as Capt. Sung Kim, interdenominational counselor for Charlie Company of the 3rd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment.

Worries about home

"The family is a big issue," he said yesterday. One soldier recently showed up at his tent, obsessed with concerns that his wife and child will not get by without him. A more common dread is being dumped by a spouse. Sung predicted it won't be long before the first young soldier shows up with news that his wife or girlfriend has left him. After the battalion spent a summer at West Point, 10 soldiers returned to Kentucky heartbroken, he said.

Pvt. Matthew Sinsigalli talks of an uneasy feeling because of the distance. "I'm not worried about myself, I'm worried about my wife," he said. "I don't care what happens to me, as long as my wife's there when I get back."

Any man who tries to steal their women when they're gone is referred to as a "Jody." There's a bitter jingle they sing in the tents and trenches: "Ain't no use in calling home, Jody's got your girl and gone."

Mixed emotions

Officers have tried to add a large dose of relaxation to the training.

"Spirits are high," said Lt. Col. Ed Palekas, the 3rd Battalion commander. His soldiers? "They're doing well," which is undoubtedly true for some, but others tell of more complicated feelings.

"It eats away at you," said Pvt. Jose Arroyo. "These cats miss their families at home. We're here for a purpose. We better get our hands on Iraqis before something happens, before fights start breaking out."

He saw the frictions last week, when a private inadvertently took another soldier's anthrax pills, an error that was discovered only after everyone emptied out their gas mask bags. A sergeant became so angry that he and the private had words and tussled, falling over rucksacks. Another sergeant sprinted the length of the tent and broke up the fight with a body tackle. The incident, witnesses agreed, probably would not have happened at Fort Campbell.

"They're both good soldiers," Arroyo said. "It was just stress."

And there is the large, hazy prospect of war.

"Without a clear idea what our mission is going to be, I have no idea what to expect," said Sgt. Michael MacDonald. "I can only hope to be prepared as best I can. What else can you do? I try not to look too far forward."

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