Troops coming to grips with war

Reality: Assault packs, gas masks and sirens warning of incoming missiles give U.S. soldiers a growing sense of what may lie ahead.

War In Iraq

March 21, 2003|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CAMP PENNSYLVANIA, Kuwait - It was 12:25 p.m. yesterday when the first alarm sounded - a long tone, the warning that an incoming missile had been detected. Soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division reached for the gas masks fastened to their hips, then went into concrete bunkers surrounded by sandbags.

The second alarm sounded scarcely 30 minutes after the first ended. The third came around 3:30 p.m. the next at dinner time. Then three more early this morning.

Each time, soldiers packed into the bunkers in an orderly procession. As the minutes dragged on, the soldiers' feet fell asleep. Noses began to itch. Sweat glistened on some faces. When one soldier suggested that the bunker might offer little protection from a direct strike, another soldier laughed uneasily.

Everyone, except the Indian and Pakistani cafeteria workers, stared through the masks until the all-clear siren wailed.

"The threat is real," said Sgt. Chet Ziolkowski, 29, of Dundalk, who was waiting to get a haircut when the first alarm sounded.

"It gives me a sense this isn't fun and games like everyone thought it would be," said Spc. Shawn Mettler, who had been scheduled to leave the Army next month.

For much of yesterday, a line of trucks, large and small, stood alongside a row of tents. Hoods were propped open so mechanics could check fluid levels and batteries.

In one exercise, Command Sgt. Maj. Thomas Woodhams tested whether it made more sense to load troops on the trucks so they sat facing inward or outward.

The 700-member 3rd Battalion of the 327th Infantry Regiment has 82 vehicles, including Humvees, flat-nosed cargo or troop carriers called LMTVs, ambulances and Avenger anti-aircraft trucks. All but 12 have arrived from the port, and the stragglers are due in today.

As members of an air assault division, these soldiers typically take helicopters to battle zones. Whether they go by land or by air, however, space limitations require some gear to be left behind.

In their tents, soldiers are laboring to ready their assault packs and rucksacks. The packing list is specific: They must put 27 items in the assault packs, including a second chemical suit, 29 in their rucksacks.

For some soldiers, the trick has been simply finding one of those items buried deep in their duffel bag. The duffels will be filled with less-vital items and sent to troops later by truck.

That's the theory anyway. Some veterans of the Persian Gulf war say the gear they left behind in 1991 was never seen again.

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