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Soldiers toughen up during desert combat training

FORT IRWIN, Calif.—The day before his young soldiers shot live ammunition in desert combat training, 1st Sgt. Mark Schoch fired question after question at the infantrymen gathered around him.

He told one soldier to unsheathe his bayonet. "Is it clean?" Schoch asked. When the soldier obediently pulled out the razor-sharp steel and extended it for inspection, Schoch shrank back and joked: "Don't come close to me." There was laughter.

But among the 60 soldiers in Bravo Company, the man who is familiarly known as "First Sergeant" is usually as serious as a heart attack.

The 40-year-old from Menomonie, Wis., is the senior noncommissioned officer in this tank company, based in Fort Riley, Kan. He makes sure orders get carried out, according to his and the Army's standards.

His job isn't easy. He is awake before his soldiers and up long after they have turned in. He keeps checking his watch. Things have to happen on time: meals, maintenance, repairs, refueling and maneuvers.

Schoch, a tank commander in the Persian Gulf War, came to the Army's desert training center to prepare his troops for a possible role in a war with Iraq. He is a former drill sergeant, erect and sharp-eyed. When he arrives, soldiers stop joking around and turn serious.

His face is red from the desert sun. The years have left creases at the corners of his eyes, and they aren't laugh lines. Some of the men he leads are young enough to be his sons, and he feels responsible for their safety.

On a recent day, Schoch ordered the infantrymen to conduct a fire drill, to see how well they would escape from the armored hull of their Bradley fighting vehicle in a real emergency.

After their second attempt, he said, "That was good. The first drill, nobody knew where to go. It's got to be automatic."

Later, during a break, he took off his helmet, a rare occurrence. When he is out inspecting the troops, he insists on "individual soldier discipline" and he teaches by example.

That means wearing all the cumbersome protective gear, including a helmet. That means maintaining acceptable hygiene: shaving and bathing even in the dirtiest, most primitive conditions. That means showing what he calls "proper respect."

Platoon Sgt. Gary Bacon knows exactly what the first sergeant expects. "If it's not by the book, he'll make you go back and do it again," Bacon said. "If he tells you something, he doesn't want to ask for it twice."

Schoch, the son of a career Navy man, joined the Army when he was 18. "I just liked tanks—fascinated with them since I was little," he said.

In 1991, he led a tank crew against Iraqi forces. Firing from about 2 miles away, his tank destroyed an Iraqi tank, two personnel carriers, a vehicle and a bunker. Later, he inspected the targets. Fire had charred the Iraqi tank, personnel carriers and vehicle. The bunker had been obliterated.

He saw bodies and parts of bodies. He saw two lifeless Iraqi hands, frozen by fire to their tank's steering mechanism.

Will his Bravo Company soldiers be ready if they are sent to fight?

"They'll be successful," he said. "Without a doubt."

After long days and nights of training, Sgt. David Garvie slept late one recent morning. He rolled out of his sleeping bag at 5:15 a.m. In the cold desert morning he stood outside his armored personnel carrier, stripped to his waist and wiped off grime with packaged moist towels. Then he poured a canteen cup of water over his matted hair and rubbed in shampoo.

The conditions at Fort Irwin closely replicate what soldiers would face if they deploy to the Persian Gulf, Schoch said.

In the sand here, a soldier's life is primitive and exhausting. The enemies are lack of sleep, cold nights, parching days and dust that hangs like a fog and filters the sunlight, dust so thick a soldier smells it and eats it.

In these conditions, water, nutrition and hygiene are crucial. A filthy, malnourished, dehydrated soldier cannot train or fight effectively.

The men of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 13th Armored Regiment launch their mock battles and maneuvers early, usually from 1 to 3 a.m. They wake up with a drill called "stand-to." In the darkness, the tank and vehicle crews crawl from sleeping bags, stow their gear and start their engines.

They must be prepared to move out quickly or defend themselves. In a real combat zone, the enemy often strikes early, under cover of darkness.

When the men do close their eyes at night, the howls of coyotes in the California desert training ground pierce a quiet that is only relative. It is never silent. Radios crackle, helicopters make their distinctive blade sounds, convoys rumble by, tank engines whine.

The troops snooze when and wherever they can. During a lull one morning, Pvt. Jack Morris, 21, of Fort Wayne, Ind., napped in the sand on the sunny side of an armored personnel carrier.

The soldiers do whatever it takes to stay awake when they have to be alert. Spc. Mike Bowles, a 24-year-old tank crew member from Flagstaff, Ariz., sings to himself.

At night, the men take turns on radio duty or guard duty, often sitting behind .50-caliber machine guns. "If you fall asleep in combat, people could well die because of you," said 1st Lt. Chris Berg, 26, of Milbank, S.D.

Then there's the lack of moisture. Even in the winter, the dryness can dehydrate soldiers quickly. Officers tell them to drink a quart of water every hour. With the dryness comes dust that clogs and irritates sinuses. Each morning, soldiers cough and spit.

On the tanks, Bradleys and other vehicles, soldiers swath themselves with scarves, masks and goggles.

When the sun goes down, so does the temperature. A cold breeze drifts across the desert floor, and the men of Bravo Company begin to add layers of clothing. In these conditions, it doesn't take long to get grimy.

Soldiers take "baby-wipe showers" with alcohol-infused, antibacterial towels. A few hours after they wash, they are dusty and dirty again.

In the Army, even in the desert, a shaven face is mandatory. It's not a matter of looking good. It can mean life or death: Beard stubble prevents gas masks from sealing.

Soldiers must be ready to quickly don masks for a simulated biological or chemical attack. They take the drills seriously.

Some men resort to a painful "dry shave," without shaving cream or water. Others use electric razors or manage to heat water. There is no plumbing or privacy. Soldiers try to tend to calls of nature during daylight. Even a savvy soldier can stumble and fall or get disoriented in the desert darkness.

When the sun goes down, the soldiers go to work. Drivers maneuver with night-vision equipment. "We like to think we own the night," said Garvie, the 25-year-old sergeant from Bakersfield, Calif.

In camp, they use colored light sticks or colored flashlight filters that give off less light, and use even those dim lights sparingly. They must take care when they walk around at night, with so many unlighted tanks and heavy vehicles coming and going.

After a long day or night, nothing is as welcome as a hot meal, dished out onto Styrofoam from a supply truck. In the darkness one night, Bravo Company gathered around a supply truck for dinner. The men wolfed down pork cutlets, corn, rice, canned peaches and salad. They ate by moonlight and light sticks.

The lack of sleep, endless work and harsh conditions are part of being a soldier. Whining isn't accepted, said Capt. Brad Johnson, of Stilwell, Kan.

"It's mental," he said. "You just have to get over the fact that it's going to be uncomfortable."

Then it gets easier. Or at least easier when measured on a soldier's scale.


(Potter reports for the Wichita Eagle.)


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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