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Moving heavy machinery all in a day's work

Name: Susie Caballero

Rank: Specialist

Age: 24

Hometown: Benavides, Texas

Branch: Army Reserve

Job: crane operator

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CAMP ARIFJAN, Kuwait—Specialist Susie Caballero is a wisp of a soldier, 5 foot 3 and barely 120 pounds, a former college cheerleader who grew up driving tractors on a ranch in Texas.

She's on the phone talking to her mother, Alma Caballero, trying to stay upbeat and reassuring, but it's not working.

"Mom, this is my choice," Susie Caballero said. "I signed the papers."

Alma Caballero can't talk. She only cries.

Susie Caballero, 24, has always been the strong one. She's a crane operator for an Army Reserve support unit based at Camp Arifjan, about a 30-minute drive from Kuwait City.

"Be proud of me," Susie Caballero said. "Dad would be proud of me."

Her father, Richard Caballero, who did a tour in the Air Force, died six years ago.

Susie Caballero was 18 years old when she inherited her father's 2,000-acre ranch in Benavides, Texas, because her mother didn't want to run it.

She took control of everything. She handles the heavy machinery, including bulldozers and tractors, putting in a pond as her father had taught her. The ranch has horses and cattle, but it's used mainly for deer hunting. She leases it to a group of businessmen from north Texas.

"During hunting season, I'm the one who goes out and checks on the hunters," she said. "During the off season, I fill up feeders for deer."

Caballero is a natural leader in civilian life, and it's the same in the desert.

She stands in the middle of the road stopping traffic and directing a team of workers using a 22-ton crane on a sprawling Army supply base. They're trying to move concrete barriers off a truck and into two rows around a supply building to protect it against a car bomb.

Finally, Caballero holds up her right fist. "That's good," she said.

The crane operator lowers the barrier to the ground.

Caballero takes over, jumping into the cab, working the controls and moving another barrier into place. She does it in half the time it took the male crane operator.

The sleeves of her T-shirt are rolled up. High on her right arm is the telltale mark of a soldier in Kuwait: the red streak of a smallpox vaccination. The scab hasn't fallen off yet, a sign that she's a newcomer in this part of the world. It usually falls off after three weeks.

"It's been interesting," Caballero said. "I wouldn't change this for anything. This is the perfect time in my life to do this. I don't have kids; no husband."

Burned out from college—she was studying exercise physiology at Texas A&M but didn't finish—Caballero joined the Army Reserve after Sept. 11 in a rush of patriotism. "It's something I always wanted to do, and it was the right time."

She signed up for six years and was called to active duty Dec. 28. Her unit is based out of Corpus Christi, Texas, attached to the 68th Corps Support Battalion. This is her first tour overseas.

"My eyes hurt from the sand," she said. "My face feels horrible. I think I most miss bathing in a bathtub. That's what I miss, that and being able to walk around in my civilians."

Her civilians? That's jeans, shorts and cowboy boots.

But she isn't complaining.

She passes time by listening to country music or working out in the gym. "If it wasn't for my CD player, I'd go insane," she said.

Especially on the hard days, when she thinks about her mother.

After several painful phone calls, Caballero has reached a conclusion: "I want to talk to my mom, but she's taking it hard. From now on, I'm just gonna write letters."

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

ILLUSTRATION (from KRT Illustration Bank, 202-383-6064): IRAQFACES+CABALLERO

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