Forces unfazed as clock runs out

Kuwait: Despite the president's ultimatum, it's business as usual for the U.S. soldiers who would invade Iraq.

Deadline For Hussein

March 19, 2003|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CAMP PENNSYLVANIA, Kuwait - A full 14 hours after President Bush gave his ultimatum on Iraq, Spc. Michael Kowalsky had little to say about the historic speech.

He didn't know a thing about it.

"What did he say?" he asked in all seriousness as he settled in with buddies to watch Behind Enemy Lines on a DVD player.

Kowalsky, 22, is a member of the Army's 101st Airborne Division, which could move behind enemy lines in a matter of days. But he spent yesterday like any other, working on trucks and pining for home in Wheatfield, Ind.

His lack of situational awareness, to borrow an Army phrase, may be extreme. Even so, it got at a larger truth: At this particular military camp near Iraq, an inexorable routine has taken hold, and it was holding even as Bush started a 48-hour countdown to war.

The day's highlight - a lobster-and-steak dinner at the chow tent - had been planned days ago.

"This is our last supper, and then we die," laughed Sgt. Allan Toney, indulging in a little morbid humor. "Enjoy your dinner. Savor it on your taste buds."

His dinner companion, Spc. John Luckey, looked at him blankly. "Just another meal to me."

By and large, the rhythm of the camp went on unchanged. That meant everyone from battalion commanders to rookie privates continued the task of preparing for war in a steady, workmanlike manner.

Enlisted men and officers said the war did not intrude in their thoughts any more than on other days. "I didn't really feel any different other than that the sense is it's been upped one more notch," said Maj. Chris Forbes.

At the upper levels, mission planning continued. So did regular updates on weather and trucks newly arrived from the port. "Had he not spoken, the meetings we had would have been the same," said Maj. Roger Dean, operations officer for the 3rd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment.

Signs of a hurry-up mentality existed but were not widespread. A scheduled rest day turned into a long work day for some soldiers when their superior, hearing of the 48-hour deadline, walked into their tent and shouted, "Move!"

"We had to go fast and furious," said Spc. Matt Gore. That meant mounting .50-caliber guns on Humvees, checking mufflers and everything in between - a day ahead of schedule.

That's where Kowalsky was all day, getting his water truck ready. But no one told him why the urgency, and he did not ask. "I try not to pay much attention to news as it is. I'm going to be here no matter what." In most parts of the camp, the quotidian ruled the day, just like the day before.

Spc. Michael Hayre spent the day buying Twix and Mountain Dew at the store. He also waited 90 minutes to talk to his wife, Beth, and mother, Sandy. Neither woman brought up the speech. From his mother: "She told me to keep my head down." From his wife: "She asked me if I wrote her; she ain't received no mail from me."

Hayre and his friends talked among themselves about the speech. They mainly wondered whether Bush would grant an extension. For Hayre, war feels far off yet. Maybe that is because he is waiting on rounds for the 60 mm mortar he fires.

In perhaps the surest sign of business as usual, Pfc. Santee Veach managed to read 78 pages of a paperback about mountain men called Skye's West: Rendezvous. He started it in the morning and was on chapter 13 by dinner.

Spc. Anthony Wright, who is from Essex, Md., said yesterday "was probably the most relaxing yet. We've been hanging out, resting." Dinner topped it off, he said. The steak was a little fatty, the lobster tail a little tough and slender. But it beat what soldiers refer to as the "camel burgers" and other fare.

Today, whatever the outward signs of war preparation, the menu will revert to normal.

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