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Notes from correspondents in Iraq

Knight Ridder Newspapers has posted dozens of reporters, photographers and graphic artists at military bases both at home and in the Middle East and aboard ships at sea. In the coming weeks, this occasional column will compile short dispatches from these reporters in a series of brief vignettes that papers can use as digest items, notes columns or diary entries.


KUWAIT CITY, Kuwait—These are odd times. Any doubts about that were dispelled this week as I stood in line awaiting my smallpox and anthrax vaccinations. The shots followed an hourlong Army presentation on ways the diseases and these shots could kill or maim us.

In front of me stood Bob Simon, best remembered as the CBS correspondent taken prisoner during the first Gulf War. He's older, grayer, but fit and thin with the appearance of a hard edge. He was serious going through the process:

"There are no documented cases of an enemy using anthrax as a weapon, are there?" he asked an Army doctor.

"No," the doctor said. "And I always say I don't care how much bio-chem crap they throw at us. Our boys are better prepared for this than any army in the history of the world. Much rather face an anthrax attack than have a gun to my head."

"I guess there's no vaccination for that, is there?" Simon joked, and they both laughed.

Behind me stood former National Security Council aide Oliver North. He's best remembered for his role in the 1987 Iran-Contra scandal, and his later testimony to Congress. North looked fit enough, noting that he's 60 now, but only realizes it when his wife reminds him. He was all smiles and bad jokes while waiting in line.

"What shots are you taking today?" he was asked.

"I'm taking one of everything you got back there," he said loudly, cheerfully noting that he's even taking arthritis medication these days. "I suppose Viagra is next. That's the way it works, right?"

_ Matthew Schofield


KUWAIT CITY, Kuwait—The story, the war story, hasn't started yet. So while we reporters from around the world wait to move into tents with the soldiers, we bide our time, waiting in five-star hotels where we click between air conditioning in the day and heat at night. And we pack. And repack.

We carry pens and notebooks. For the writers among us, these are the most essential pieces of equipment we have. They hold the events of the day and confirm the spellings of the names of the soldiers we'll write about. They weigh little, 18-plus pens are about a kilo and fill the side-pockets of Army style rucksacks. We carry them, firm in our belief that the pen is mightier than the sword.

In case it's not, we also carry body armor: flak jackets for shrapnel protection and bullet-proof vests for, well, some bullets, and Kevlar helmets because, while they won't stop bullets, they make us feel safer. All together, these weigh 10 kilos.

Some reporters carry special plates to boost their vests' protection. These will stop armor-piercing rounds from an AK-47 rifle. The high-tech ones weigh another three kilos. The ceramic ones weigh twice that much, sometimes more.

War, we've been taught, isn't like the movies. Soldiers aren't often killed or wounded by bullets. Shrapnel is the greater danger. For those of us reporting on the war, common sense is a greater protection. We're not here to storm hills, but to write about those who are.

The desert is cold at night, and soon will be very hot during the day. We pack to be ready for both extremes. A sleeping bag, complete with foam pad and wrap-around bivouac bag, weighs 6 kilos. A Gore-Tex jacket and fleece jacket and Army long underwear/sweats add another 3 kilos. Long pants with zip into shorts and T-shirts add one more.

A computer to write stories on, wrapped in plastic for sand protection, a cell phone that should work in most of the region and the satellite phone, which had better work for transmitting stories (except for those times when the military calls for a blackout, that may last hours, or days) plus the wires and chargers for all these, add another 9 kilos.

Then there are the essentials, soaps and wet-wipes, vitamins and medicines, water bottles (empty now) and a first aid kit. These weigh little, another 3 kilos, and should keep us a more civilized group, or at least a less rancid one.

And there are the books, another 4 kilos. One on Middle Eastern history and one on Alexander the Great, to remind me others have been here before. Two collections of Ernie Pyle's war stories, to remind me that others have done this job before, and done it much better. Another two are on battle and chemical war survival tips, and don't really need any explanation.

And one is a treasury of the world's best-loved poems, a gift from Lorelei, my wife. It's the same book that her mother gave her father when he went off to fight in World War II, and he came home. Pressed between the pages are pictures of my children, all four of them, and a psalm, written in Lorelei's hand, to remind me that our destiny is not under our control.

I will carry this into the desert in a single rucksack (a final 7 kilos), and a computer briefcase. The total weight is 44 kilos. If I'd paid attention in school when they were teaching the metric system, I'd have some idea of what that actually means: 97 pounds. It's not a heroic weight, though. Which is appropriate for my role. I'm not a hero. I'm just on my way to write about them.

_ Matthew Schofield


CAMP VIRGINIA, Kuwait—Today the wind blew and blew and blew and blew the chow tent in.

A 20-foot tent pole in the main mess hall toppled at about 8 p.m. Thursday during the evening meal. A gash to a soldier's nose was the only injury. But the wind continued to blast the camp's soldiers through most of night, partially collapsing at least two of the hundreds of canvas tents where soldiers bed down on cots.

Even tents that survived the gusts filled up with a haze of sand and dust that came so steadily that a cot swept clean was thick enough in grunge to write a soldier's name 60 minutes later. The windstorm flapped tents through the night, and weary soldiers rose in the morning to learn there would be no hot breakfast. By dinner on Friday, the mess hall was running, but there was no seating and soldiers had to wait two hours for room-temperature hamburgers and soggy fries.

"Argh!" said Sgt. 1st Class Richard Olefson, leaning into a wind that blasted the dust into his pores and cut down visibility like a February blizzard on the Great Plains.

_ Scott Canon


THE KUWAITI DESERT—Sgt. Ricardo Bustos spins a wheel, raising the barrel of a 105 mm Howitzer to a 35-degree angle, pointing it out into a wall of blowing sand.

Bustos, of Chicago, is one of 4,000 members of the 82nd Airborne Division who's now "in country," part of a growing U.S. presence. On Friday, he and 30 others members of the 5th Howitzer Section ran through five hours of drills on six big guns, during a sandstorm so strong boot tracks vanished within 30 seconds.

As he sets the sights on his weapon, a loud blam announces the first shot of live ammunition in this exercise.

"You hear that men?" Bustos' section chief, Sgt. Michael Nichols, of Lewisburg, W.Va., asks above the howling wind. "That's the sound freedom makes."

The point of the exercise is to calibrate the weapons, make sure they understand the muzzle velocities, make sure the newly arrived weapons are functioning well and to get back in practice.

Back at Ft. Bragg, N.C., Bustos and his team frequently operate at above maximum firing speed, firing more than eight rounds a minute for three minutes. But that's not into the teeth of a howling windstorm.

Captain Paul James, of St. James, New York, who is watching from about 50 meters back, says he pleased with what he's seeing.

"Listen, even if there is no war, you can't beat training in this. We try to prepare our men for these conditions, but this is the real thing, in a foreign land. A couple days ago, we learned a lot about what the sand would do to an M-4 rifle, which is to jam it pretty quick if you're not careful. We're learning a lot here today, as well. This is good."

_ Matthew Schofield


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