Soldiers endure desert boredom

Camp: As diplomatic battles rage, American troops sweat out the uncertainty in Kuwait.

March 14, 2003|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CAMP PENNSYLVANIA, Kuwait - They joined the Army because they "needed a change."

The two soldiers say this as they stare out at a dark expanse of nothingness that almost never changes. Neither seems to see the humor.

It is Bravo Company's turn for guard duty, and this pair has the graveyard shift. From midnight to 8 a.m. it will be their task to make sure no one invades this military camp, not near Tower 6 anyway.

In practice, that means standing and staring. And standing and staring some more.

"I see nothing right now," says Sgt. Carl Bisceglia, an earnest-sounding 27-year-old from Nevada. He peers intently through night vision goggles toward Iraq, 30 miles distant.

His guard duty partner, Spc. Jeremy Seeley, also 27, stares too. Were he to speak, he would do so in a slow North Carolina drawl. But he says nothing at all. There's nothing to say.

Boredom is like the sand here, ever present and impossible to chase away for long. This tower is possibly the dullest spot in a dull landscape.

It's not that there is nothing to do at Camp Pennsylvania, home to some 6,000 soldiers. It's just that there is not enough to keep it interesting.

Soldiers can lift weights, buy CDs or DVDs from the post exchange, play basketball. They can write letters and call home. If they have a laptop, they can plug in at the Internet "cafe."

They can and do sleep, day and night, in a myriad of positions, many of which look uncomfortable. They can play pingpong, watch television, read a book. They can walk to the chow tent for breakfast and walk back for dinner, as long as they can stand the long lines and don't mind going in full combat gear, as per the new policy.

Now that the mail is arriving, they can read letters from home. They can even smell some of them, thanks to perfume-spritzed envelopes.

But one thing they cannot do is leave this square mile of sand. That takes a toll.

At the camp's outer edge, Bisceglia and Seeley climb the ladder's nine rungs to Tower 6 just before midnight.

Perched on a manmade hill of dirt, the tower is metal with a roof and sandbags on all sides. There is a chair, but neither soldier sits, not now. Armed and wearing battle helmets, both face north, their faces catching a breeze that leaves the sand undisturbed below.

The night is dark. Stars that usually pulse hide behind the haze. Even so, a few sights stand out. In the distance, white lights and a blinking red light mark Udairi Range, a busy place these days as units conduct firing practice.

Closer in, the eyes make out several ridge-like sand berms built as protective buffers to stop tanks. Light escaping from the camp turns the berms bone-white so that they resemble ocean surf.

The hum of generators might be mistaken for the sound of crashing waves. The occasional trucks rolling across Udairi could be ships inching up the coast.

Everything else is a sea of sand.

Hours in the desert

These soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division are not idle all day. They do physical training. They practice how to walk as part of a wide wedge - safer for desert travel - and how to act in various combat situations. Some take classes on how to respond to a chemical attack, use a global positioning system or even distribute mail.

They do chores such as latrine cleanup or trash detail or guard duty. They keep weapons cleaned. They chug 1.5-liter bottles of Masafi bottled water that has been shipped from the United Arab Emirates.

But they must not - or must, depending on one's point of view - forget why they are here. War could begin soon, and they may be headed into Iraq. For better or worse, one thing everyone has is seemingly unlimited time to think about it all.

Bisceglia is thinking about war. Dutifully watching the horizon, he starts to tell his story.

For him the military is a family affair. His brother Byron is a member of the 3rd Infantry Division. Both joined the Army in 1997.

Carl had been working at an auto parts store near Lake Tahoe, but he is now part of the 101st's 3rd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment. He is a forward observer who helps direct artillery fire.

"There are some jitters and butterflies," he says.

"That's where my brother is," he says, pointing to the faint lights of Camp New Jersey. "He has been in two months longer than I have. We both wanted a change. And it runs in the family."

Their father is retired Army.

Seeley pipes up.

He is from Canton, N.C., and joined Jan. 17, 2001. He helps fire mortars. In the dark, his face is invisible, but he is clearly a tall man - 6-foot-3, he says. Later, a member of his company will say, with affection, that he is sort of a Forrest Gump figure in the unit.

"I kind of needed a change," Seeley says, explaining his enlistment. "I was sitting behind the wheel of a transfer truck, driving coast to coast. You're sitting behind the same steering wheel looking at the same roads day after day."

Before that, he says, "I floated from job to job, trying to find myself."

He checks his watch. It's only 1:25 a.m.

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