Restless U.S. soldiers watch fighting on TV

Combat: Itching to go to the aid of their comrades, members of the 101st Airborne waiting in Kuwait debate how much war news the public should get.

War In Iraq

March 25, 2003|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CAMP PENNSYLVANIA, Kuwait - Soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division have been sent here to fight a war, but the only combat many have seen so far has been on CNN.

The division's Bastogne Brigade is stuck in camp, awaiting orders to head to Iraq. And many restless soldiers dressed for battle with nowhere to go are taking in the war from metal chairs in front of the big-screen JVC at the television tent.

From those chairs, they confront the troubling questions of war. They see the uncertain faces of fellow soldiers being held prisoner, they look at dead bodies, and they wonder what the next days hold out for them. They watch firefights only a few hundred miles away, and they sit here, waiting, unable to help.

"I hope to God I don't see no Iraqis," says Patrick Chrzanowski, a sergeant with blue eyes and a long nose who often sounds sarcastic even when he isn't. "They'll get a bullet hole right there," he says, pointing to his forehead.

The nonstop news only adds to the stress of being here, a bleak desert outpost where Scud missile alerts wail often and a deadly grenade attack, apparently launched against them by one of their own men early Sunday, remains fresh in people's minds.

Images on the screen remind soldiers both that they are not in the war yet and that they might be soon. They watch U.S. forces making progress, and the terrible cost of that progress, the imprisoned U.S. troops being interrogated, the ecstatic Iraqis cheering the downing of an Apache attack helicopter.

They watch, rapt.

The soldiers disagree on whether it is good or bad for the anchors in New York and the correspondents in Iraq to say and show so much to the folks back home, and to them.

"People need to know," says Cpl. Brian Pettigrew, a stalky, affable 22-year-old scout from Ohio who celebrates his Native American heritage with a "Chickasaw" tattoo running from his shoulder to his elbow.

Chrzanowski, a tall and lanky 23-year-old who has been in the Army four years and re-upped in August for six more, takes the opposite view. He thinks the public knows too much as it is.

"Personally," he says, "I don't think media should have anything to do with the war."

One opinion the two soldiers share - other than that the Army has straightened them both out - is that watching it all makes them feel ever more restless, and shackled, after three weeks here.

"To know we have brothers out there being waxed - they don't deserve to be out there by themselves," says Chrzanowski, who often sounds sarcastic even when he isn't. "Not that I'm gung-ho - I'd rather be back in the States - but let's get this freaking thing over."

Pettigrew, who hopes to attend college and become a junior high school teacher, puts it this way: "I don't want to come to war, but I don't want to leave my brothers out there. It sucks that people are dying and captured, and we're sitting here. It's hard to wait."

They were sitting toward the back of the half-full tent yesterday afternoon. About a hundred other soldiers silently watched CNN's morning show with Paula Zahn live via satellite - it's eight hours later here than in New York.

The two had walked over from Pad 3, one of the tent clusters that pass for neighborhoods at the camp. The TV tent sits in the middle of what might be considered the shopping center.

Steps away are other tents housing a weight room, two cafeterias, store, barber shop and phone calling center. The TV tent is conveniently near two sandbag-reinforced concrete Scud bunkers, four portable toilets and a smoking gazebo.

The TV tent is formally called the "morale, welfare and recreation" tent, a catchall phrase for the various diversions offered to keep anxious soldiers semi-relaxed. It is a large tent, perhaps 120 by 50 feet, with two covered entrances made of plywood.

Eight center poles painted yellow hold it up. Fluorescent light bulbs on the wall spread dim light. When the wind blows, as it usually does here, the canvas roof billows like a mainsail in a stiff breeze.

The front half is oriented to the television. The back half has four picnic tables, a couple of pingpong tables and worn paperbacks in racks. In one corner is a bowed shelf with videotapes for the VCR and seven Yahtzee word games.

The TV offerings are split between news and movies, between up-to-the-minute reality and far-away fantasy. When the news is on, virtually everyone in the tent is focused on the TV.

Chrzanowski was speaking as CNN was broadcasting a report on U.S. soldiers taken prisoner. Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based news channel, had broadcast interviews with five soldiers it identified as U.S. prisoners, and now CNN showed a brief snippet of a frightened-looking Spc. Joseph Hudson talking into a microphone labeled "Iraqi Television." A CNN correspondent interviewed Hudson's distraught mother.

"This is the stuff that's bad to show. It's depressing," Chrzanowski says.

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