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Dispatch from the 101st

Desert life's better this time around

By WES ALLISON, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 9, 2003


CAMP UDAIRI, Kuwait -- Bring plenty to read. The sand storms may kill your watch, so bring an extra. It does rain in the desert. And never, ever play with the wildlife.

The U.S. troops massing in desert camps along the Iraqi border have a key advantage over the soldiers who fought in Desert Storm in 1991: Many of their leaders fought here then, and they are sharing their experience -- from the tactical to the trivial -- with the men and women below them.

Soldiers who fought in Desert Storm also say the Army is better prepared for desert fighting than it was then, and far better at making life tolerable for the troops.

Goggles, for example, are now standard issue -- some days it is impossible to see without them -- and the five U.S. Army posts along the border also have portable toilets and mess tents serving at least two hot meals a day.

Soldiers may even shower as often as once every four days, an unthinkable luxury during the buildup for Desert Storm.

"This is set up," said Sgt. 1st Class Kevin Toon, 35, of Havelock, N.C., a mechanic who served in Desert Storm and is now a member of the 101st Airborne's Division Supply Command, or DISCOM, which resupplies troops and maintains vehicles.

"There was nothing when we were here before," Toon said. "Nothing. People would get stuck going into the desert. Engineers would have to get them out. We didn't know what to do then."

While the Army can't say how many veterans of Desert Storm have deployed to Kuwait this time, the number of soldiers with combat patches on their right shoulders suggest there are thousands.

Some units, such as the headquarters company of the Airborne's Division Supply Command, boast nearly a dozen. Many enlisted men, junior noncommissioned officers or young officers during Desert Storm now hold leadership posts, and they liberally offer tips to their charges.

Bring resealable plastic food-storage bags to protect important personal and military items.

Sweat often evaporates in the dry desert heat before it shows on clothing, so don't be fooled into thinking you're not losing fluids. Drink lots of water.

Avoid snakes, scorpions and even local livestock, which can carry diseases.

After the sand ravaged electronics in the first Gulf War, Sgt. Maj. Joel Webb of the 101st Airborne Division, a young staff sergeant in 1991, learned that pantyhose can protect computer equipment without causing the machines to overheat.

Capt. Scott Meyer, 39, of Tampa was a lowly specialist when he served with a military police unit during Desert Storm. Now he commands DISCOM's headquarters company.

"You know what to expect. You know what the living conditions are going to be like. You know how to deal with it," Meyer said as he cleaned the dust from a 9mm pistol Saturday morning. It would be dusty again by lunch.

"You know what the traffic is going to be like. As ridiculous as that sounds, we lost more people in vehicle accidents last time than we did in combat."

In 1991, the primary mode of communication was FM radio, which had limited range. Now the Army has sophisticated satellite phones, among other things, to help units keep in touch with each other and headquarters.

Chief Warrant Officer 4 David "Smokey" Robinson, who flew an Apache attack helicopter in Desert Storm and now flies a newer version, said pilots became experts at landing in blinding sand and navigating over the featureless landscape.

But it was difficult, and the advent of global positioning systems has made navigation much more reliable, said Robinson, 41, of Greenville, S.C., a member of the 229th Flying Tigers, which is attached to the 3rd Infantry Division at Camp Udairi.

Young soldiers caught kvetching about the hourslong lines at the camp store and laundry are quickly reminded how good they have it compared to those who were here in Desert Storm.

"When I came in '91, we ate strictly MREs for 21/2 months before we had a hot meal," said Master Sgt. Vickie Biggs-Pewitte, 43, of Beckley, W. Va., a communications specialist for DISCOM.

Added Cpl. Timothy Schroader, "I think (the Army) has done a spectacular job as far as lessons learned. It's real good for morale."

For some, returning to the Middle East has been an emotional journey as well. Schroader was traveling to his new home at Camp Udairi last week when his convoy roared through a piece of his past he will never forget.

It was a cluster of burned out Iraqi tanks, artillery, sedans and pickup trucks straddling the beaten, pock marked road that was once the main trading route between Kuwait and Iraq. The vehicles had been pushed to the sides of the road, but Schroader recognized them nonetheless.

As a young artilleryman in Desert Storm, Schroader drove through the smoldering wreckage shortly after the retreating column was bombarded by U.S. forces.

"Vehicles were riddled with bullet holes, cars blowed up, bodies of Iraqi soldiers on the side of the road," Schroader recalled.

He and other Desert Storm veterans say they regret having to return. Although America and its allies quickly accomplished their mission in 1991, booting the Iraqis out of Kuwait, many said they wished they could have gone after Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein back then, even if it meant fighting their way into Baghdad.

"Finding myself as a product of that situation again, I hope this time we do what we have to," said Staff Sgt. Michael Hemphill, a trainer for the 101st Airborne who also served in Desert Storm. "We need to remove the tyrant. We need to remove Saddam. The next generation of soldiers, I don't want them to have to come back."

Sgt. 1st Class Daniel White, a chemical weapons coordinator for DISCOM headquarters who served as artilleryman in Desert Storm, talks with young soldiers about "survivability," showing how he learned to fit food, water, a compass, flashlight and other gear in a vest and a small pack.

He said he knew when U.S. forces left in 1991 that someday U.S. soldiers would have to return, with or without him.

"I don't really want to be here, but I joined the military," said White, a 23-year veteran of the Army. "If I wasn't here, where would I be? I'd be in the rear, wishing I was here."

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