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Dispatch from the 101st

Over the desert, through the sand

By WES ALLISON, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 8, 2003


CAMP VICTORY, Kuwait -- It was near midnight Thursday and the road was drowning under an ocean of sand. The bus was following its U.S. Army Humvee escort, whose taillights became barely visible from 10 yards away. That's when the Kuwaiti driver hit the brakes and slapped his hands together, as if to wash them of something distasteful.

"Finished," he said.

It had been a long day for the soldiers and reporters on board, and was only getting longer.

Sandstorms ravaged the string of U.S. Army desert camps along the Kuwaiti-Iraqi border Thursday night and Friday, fouling transportation and toppling dozens of chow and sleeping tents.

As America prepares for war with Iraq, it has amassed troops, helicopters and armor at bases on the border, anchored by Camp Victory at the south and Camp Udairi in the north. In between are camps Virginia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York.

The sandstorms toppled tents, sent tables cartwheeling, and turned short trips into long journeys. Soldiers driving among the camps Thursday and Friday needed compasses or Global Positioning Systems simply to tell north from south.

The wind eased early Friday morning, then returned mid morning -- just as the troops had finished cleaning their guns and gear from the blizzard of the night before. By 2 p.m. the wind again was roaring, snapping tie-down lines on tents and bouncing garbage across the compounds.

Sand and dust are ubiquitous here. It grimes ears and noses, drifts into food and becomes enmeshed in the hair of anyone who doesn't have a crew cut. Sandstorms accelerate those effects, of course, but can also interfere with communications, kill electronic equipment and ground attack helicopters.

Thursday night and much of Friday, it was all but impossible to see and breathe outside without goggles and a scarf. Even inside the sleeping tents, dust hung in the air like smoke at a honky-tonk, making it hard to see from end to end. Soldiers coughed in their cots.

Capt. Warren Fisher, 33, of Cookeville, Tenn., said it took him three and a half hours to drive from Victory to Udairi Friday. Usually it takes an hour and a half.

"I know these camps pretty good. I know this route pretty good," said Fisher, of the Army's 627th Movement Control Team. "I had to pull out the compass and just head north."

* * *

After declaring himself "finished" when he reached Camp Victory, the driver of the reporters' bus put his legs on his steering wheel, rewrapped his red and white head dress, and promptly fell asleep.

Twenty-two reporters living with the 101st Airborne Division at the camps took the chartered bus to the Kuwait City Hilton on Thursday to register with U.S. officials. The 50-mile journey was full of delays: a flat tire; a stubborn driver who made them switch buses and drivers; and a brief morning sandstorm that left the bus momentarily lost. The trip took 8 hours.

When the front edge of the storm hit Thursday night, around 9 p.m., the bus was leaving the lights of Kuwait City to return the reporters to their desert outposts.

The first stop was Camp Victory. The bus and its Humvee escort turned onto a sand road leading to the camp, then stopped. Blowing sand had cut visibility to about 10 yards, and the bus driver feared drifting into the soft sand on either side of the road.

A Humvee took the Victory-based reporters back to their units while the others waited on the bus with three young soldiers from the Airborne's public affairs office, Sgt. Chris Keepes, Lt. Eric Lake, and Lt. Dale Jordan.

Sand pinged the bus' side like thousands of tiny BBs. The wind blew so hard that a penny dropped from waist-high landed nearly 3 feet away.

An hour and a half later, just past 1 a.m., Jordan rousted the driver. The wind had eased and he could see traffic on a nearby highway.

Sgt. 1st Class Brian Thomas, 33, of Marcus, Iowa, who was navigating the lead Humvee, led the bus off the smooth highway outside Victory to MSR Barbara, a cratered, desolate track that connects the northern camps.

Each of the American camps is surrounded by an 8- to 10-foot high sand berm, two to four miles around. To enter the camps, drivers must find the guard tower at a break in the berm.

The bus reached New Jersey safely at about 2 a.m. and freed several print and TV reporters based there. Just a half-dozen remained on board. But as they neared the next stop, Camp Pennsylvania, the Humvee left the road and cut through the desert, apparently searching for a more direct route. The bus lurched in the sand and Jordan radioed ahead to Sgt. Thomas.

"You looking for a hardtop?"

"I'm cutting across Camp New York so we can go around the berm" to get into Pennsylvania, Thomas answered.

Camp New York is due east of Pennsylvania, and Thomas was going the right direction, but Lake didn't like it. He wanted Thomas to stick to the known roads. Although they are unpaved, they are packed flat, and the driver feared his bus would founder in the desert.

After a half-hour or more of bouncing through the desert, Lake told Jordan, "I think we went too far west and circled the perimeter. . . . This makes no sense."

Jordan relayed the concern to Sgt. Thomas.

"I'm going by GPS, sir," Thomas replied.

The bus driver motioned his bus was sinking. Jordan radioed the Humvee. "We're getting deeper in that sand."

The Humvee kept going. Eventually he found a berm -- but it was Camp New York's. They had somehow missed Pennsylvania, and would have to backtrack about 2 miles.

Lake was furious. "What did I tell you?" he said to no one in particular. "We went right (expletive) by it, because we cut through the (expletive) desert. People want to cut across because they look at the map and think it's shorter. But you can't do that. This is the desert."

They eventually found the entrance to Pennsylvania. Thomas headed for the last stop, Udairi, but rather than staying on the road as Lake had requested, he cut through the desert.

He was relying on a hand-held GPS to find the most direct route. Once again, they ended up at Camp New York.

The driver was inconsolable. Lake was inconsolable. He ordered the Humvee to stop, then ran over. The dust was flying, and so were the words. Sgt. Thomas boarded the bus quietly while Lake took his seat in the Humvee.

Sgt. Keepes, 28, of Mattoon, Ill., a good-natured transportation expert who had ridden the bus all day, tried to ease the tension. He motioned to the small black box Thomas was fingering.

"That a GPS?"

Thomas grunted.

And although Thomas never expressed his satisfaction, Lt. Lake did little better. After a half-hour of watching the lieutenant follow a firm but meandering road, Thomas broke his silence.

"Sir, that's not the way you want to go," he told Jordan. Jordan relayed the message to the Humvee.

"Do you want to get to Camp Udairi?" Thomas asked.

Jordan: "Yes."

"Then I'll take my seat back," Thomas said.

The convoy stopped. He and Lake switched again.

"C'mon, Mr. I'm-Going-To-Get-Us-There," Jordan chided Lake as he rejoined the bus.

With Thomas in the lead, the lights of Udairi soon loomed ahead. They dropped the last three journalists off at 6 a.m., making it a 20-hour round trip since they had left Udairi.

"I'll tell you what screwed me up, and I won't lie," Lake told Jordan. "They re-dozered the road."

Jordan scoffed at his friend.

"They always re-dozer the road."

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