In the blistering, 47° C heat, American servicemen flexed and sweated while awaiting their turn to use the $8-million sports complex on a military base in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces. “We’re just dying for the air conditioning,” said one camouflaged marine. Elsewhere on the sprawling base, Specialist Kathryn Carson unloaded 160 burlap mailbags, each weighing 46 pounds, before packing 300 bags for the return trip to the United States. Anticipating heavier workloads as the troops settled in, Carson said: “They tell us we’ll be here six to 12 months.” For the thousands of U.S. servicemen in Saudi Arabia, many of whom arrived voicing gung-ho enthusiasm for a swift and decisive strike against Iraq, the more likely prospect of a long, tedious desert standoff was beginning to make an impact. Just how tedious was evident at the base PX: although many of the metal shelves had already been stripped of their toothpaste, shaving cream and junk food, the nine brands of condoms remained unsold—apparent testimony to another reality of a foreign soldier’s life in conservative, Islamic Saudi Arabia.
As President George Bush and Iraqi Presi-
dent Saddam Hussein played out their war of nerves and TV appearances, and would-be mediators sought a diplomatic solution to the Persian Gulf crisis, the likelihood of an immediate armed conflict appeared to recede. And some of the American military bravado, summed up by a PX-offered T-shirt that boasts, “Mercenaries Never Die, They Just Go To Hell To Regroup,” seemed to fade along with it. Amid the largest buildup of U.S. forces since the Vietnam War, an estimated 100,000 American servicemen by week’s end, one airman, 27-year-old Sgt. Sharod Holmes, wrote a poem called “The Saudi Blues.” It says in part:
The day I arrived, I thought this isn’t bad.
But as time went by, I began to feel sad.
Lamenting the heat, the loneliness and the long hours of work, Holmes concludes:
I guess you can see it’s no big news.
All I have is the Saudi Blues.
There is certainly ample reason for that feeling. Many of the troops piling off the C-5
Galaxy transport planes and the civilian aircraft, toting mottled green kit bags tightly packed with supplies, end up in tent cities that have mushroomed around the country. In the eastern provinces, wind, sand and especially the intense heat have stretched the resources of the 50-bed field hospital, as the 10 doctors attend to cases of dehydration, heat stress and rashes. Tempers have flared as well, spurred in part by the Spartan, overcrowded living conditions. And although Bush exhorted the troops in a radio broadcast last Thursday, describing America’s “once-reluctant fist, now clenched resolutely,” he gave no indication of how long it would have to stay clenched. And still the men and ma2 chines kept coming. At the £ strategic nerve centre of OpI eration Desert Shield (the z Pentagon bars reporters - from revealing exact locations), American servicemen work 36-hour shifts with four hours off to unload the largebellied green aircraft. Out come armored tanks, Apache helicopters, electronically guided Patriot missiles and anti-aircraft Gatling guns. Further north at a coastal port, a U.S. combat support ship disgorges forklifts, fiveton cargo trucks and massive flatbed trailers. The operation, which has tested the U.S. military airlift and sealift capabilities, has also stretched the resources of the host country. To accommodate the swelling American presence, Saudi troops have evacuated army barracks and airfields, moving closer to the front line with Iraq. The Saudis have also supplied hot meals to the American troops until the U.S. mess halls are built. Said Maj.-Gen. William Pagonis, deputy commanding general for the massive deployment: “Even the United States would have a hard time accommodating the amount of soldiers we’ve dumped here.”
At the field hospital, with its folding surgery, medical and laboratory tents, talk among the soldiers turned often to home. “It’s been an adventure,” said Air Force technician Joel Kandra. “But we’ll be glad to go.” Close by, in the air evacuation tents, one Gl had more immediate concerns: “We need more toilet paper and more mail.” But even as the mail started to flow, the military limited the size of the packages. That, said Senior Airman Michelle Argabrite, 21, an ammunitions loader, “means no more cookies from Mom.”
The servicewomen were having special problems. Argabrite, sitting outside a steelreinforced bunker that houses the heat-seeking Sidewinder and radar-guided Sparrow missiles that arm the F-15 fighter planes, complained of culture shock in a Moslem land. She cannot mix with the men in the gym, swim with them in the
pool, or pay for supplies herself at the PX. And she has to adhere to a strict dress code—long sleeves and a hat—and never leave the base. “Being over here is very frustrating,” said Argabrite, a native of Long Beach, Calif. “The first night, it was real scary—they said the attack was imminent. But now it’s just gotten monotonous. You work a 12hour shift, eat your MREs [meals ready to eat], go to the gym, write a letter and go to bed.” The most disturbing part, she said, is not knowing how long she will stay. “It’s a waiting game,” she said. “We’re in limbo.”
Still, some of the Americans were clearly enjoying the experience, especially the chance to operate sophisticated equipment under battlefield conditions. Lt.-Col. Greg Richardson,
40, checked his F-15 fighter after his ground crew hauled it out of a hangar in a nearly invisible, manmade sand dune. He was about to leave on a fourhour reconnaissance mission, patrolling south of the Kuwaiti border in search of enemy aircraft, and he plainly savored the prospect of locking his radar onto a Russian-made MiG-29 Fulcrum, the most sophisticated aircraft that the Iraqis fly. “This beats training at home,” Richardson said.
“It’s pretty tough to simulate the fact that any minute somebody might be shooting at you. It injects a very sobering mentality.”
Scorning comparisons with the popular movie Top Gun, Richardson said: “This is 90-percent more exciting and more lethal. This is the ultimate. Other than living through an air battle where you get five kills in one mission, it doesn’t get any better.” With the fighter’s
hatch lowered, the ground crew did the lastminute checks, pulled the safety pins and yellow markers from the array of weapons and gave the signal. Ten minutes after the engines started up, Richardson’s plane taxied down the runway, blasting the ground crew with exhaust before making a smooth, deafening takeoff.
On another site, surrounded by concertina wire with razor-sharp barbs, Capt. Joe de Antona, 28, from Scranton, Penn., stood guard over a battery of Patriot missiles. Designed to destroy hostile aircraft and missiles, they have never been tested in war. “Here, everything is a real threat,” said de Antona. “It’s a one-shot deal, but we have some awesome firepower.” Of course, the desert has some firepower of its own. Under a green tarpaulin tent, covered with a chemically treated camouflage net to diffuse radar detection, the soldiers sleeping on canvas cots have to deal with venomous black cobras and seven-inch scorpions that sometimes curl up in empty boots at night. “You just have to remember to shake your boots out in the morning,” said de Antona.
Back at the nerve centre of Operation Desert Shield, U.S. military planners wrestle with an outdated blueprint for war that identifies the Soviet Union as the enemy and a nuclear attack as a likely threat. Confronting a different foe, on unfamiliar and treacherous terrain, American servicemen also face the daunting fact that there is no end in sight.
HILARY MACKENZIE in the eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.