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A private's life in the desert: serious, surreal

CAMP NEW YORK, Kuwait—He was just a kid, 19 years old and working as a ranch hand outside of Pueblo, Colo.

The son of a truck driver, Nate Slane spent his days taking care of the horses and wondering what to do with his life. It sort of occurred to him one day last year that he should go down and talk with the people at the U.S. Army enlistment center; you know, see what they had to offer.

"At the time, I was trying to get away from home, and at the same time I needed a job," Slane said. "I thought it would be kind of fun."

Today, he's been out of training for about two months. He is in Kuwait, waiting for war.

The gangly Slane stands 6-foot-3 and, on a heavy day, if he takes two cheeseburgers at the mess tent, weighs some 170 pounds. His is the same journey taken by thousands before him—the life of a private, just trying to keep his head down and, maybe, make some sense of the gathering storm around him.

Slane was assigned as an infantryman in the 101st Airborne Division at Ft. Campbell, Ky., and is a driver for a combat Humvee truck, which carries anti-armor weaponry. Such vehicles are made to chase down and destroy tanks, risking a return shot that could blow up the Humvee and those inside.

"Since I got to the unit this is the first freedom I've ever had, but it only lasted for a few days," Slane said. "As soon as I got there, we shipped out. Everyone ran around like chickens with their heads cut off."

When Slane arrived in Kuwait this past Monday, after about 12 hours of travel, his unit (D Company) was shipped off to an initial processing area at Camp Wolf, a station just outside of Kuwait City. They began with a briefing inside a large tent that included quick facts on local customs (Don't shake hands with a woman unless she initiates, and never ask one out on a date); Weather (Hot as hell, and only going to get worse); simple phrases in Arabic (The presenter said he didn't know how to pronounce them); and, of course, a map showing them all just exactly where in the world they were.

"The region does not want you there," the soldiers were told, and "the general threat to you is HIGH."

After the briefing, Slane and his comrades were herded to another tent, where they slept on plywood floors. Their sleeping bags, along with other luggage, already had been loaded onto a small railroad container on the back of a tractor-trailer. The trucks were lined up all around a large dirt clearing, the size of many football fields.

The next step from there was sometimes vague.

Several companies got told they were going to Camp Virginia. So they put their bags on the Camp Virginia container. Then word would come that it was Camp Pennsylvania. So they had to 1. Remove all of the 75-pound bags that other companies had packed behind theirs on the Camp Virginia truck. 2. Take off all their luggage. 3. Replace the bags they'd removed. 4. Load up on the Camp Pennsylvania container.

And as sure as the desert is dusty, it wasn't long before word came that they were going to Camp New Jersey instead.

There were groups of soldiers that spent an entire afternoon going through that sweat-drenched, muscle-straining ritual.

Ah, but life now at Camp New York is sweet, and Private Slane savors the sights. The desert floor looks like a lunar landscape, dusty and a little red. Early on some mornings, you can see the paths where small rocks have been pushed by the wind. To troops inside tents, when the occasional sandstorm comes it sounds like God himself has reached down and shaken the roof.

There are 14 troops in Slane's platoon tent. Some are on cots. The others, including Slane, are in sleeping bags with a thin air mattress on the floor. If he rolls just a few inches in either direction, Slane ends up on concrete.

The men of Delta Company are awakened at 5 each morning. Physical training exercises soon follow. The soldiers sprint back and forth, carrying their machine guns, bags of sand and sometimes each other. There are jogs in the desert and no matter what's happening, there's usually a sergeant yelling at someone for doing something stupid or, at times, for not doing anything at all. Some are gentler in tone, and others drop cuss words, at every other breath, like 1,000-pound bombs.

"I don't really know what I'm doing," said Slane, who's recently had his share of high-decibel consultations. "But as long as I get the training and stuff, I'll be fine."

After exercise, there's time for personal hygiene in a trailer-turned-shower facility. The stalls can be backed up by 6 a.m. And while one is showering, one may look down and see a floating Band Aid and wonder whether their big toe just got vaccinia—a virus contained in the smallpox vaccine that can be spread by touching the vaccination site.

Near the showers sit a row of portable bathrooms, which are best frequented at night, when the stench and heat are not deserving of a Dantesque description.

"The latrines are pretty nasty, man," Slane said.

The line for breakfast starts early, and by the time the Deltas walk to the mess hall tent, there's a line at least 80 people long, stretching outside and creating a long silhouette against the desert sky.

The sand, of course, is everywhere, and a lot of time is spent brushing and cleaning weapons. There's a Kuwait City radio station, near 100 on the FM dial, that plays reggae and R & B. The soldiers turn it up as they sweep their machine guns with barber's brushes, listening to Bob Marley's "No woman, No cry."

Drills for Nuclear Biological Chemical masks come and go, and the sun is unforgiving when a rubber mask is suctioned tight on the face.

On Fridays, there's a special SCUD missile drill that sends troops hustling, masks on, into a small concrete bunker. The roof isn't 5 feet off the ground. The Army warns soldiers not to sleep on their bio-chemical mask kits because they include several syringes of atropine. The substance may save a life if there's a certain kind of chemical attack, but it will also make someone seriously, and sometimes gravely, ill. Many in the bunker wonder aloud about the wisdom of being so crammed in together that they end up sitting on their neighbor's gas mask bags. With about two dozen soldiers cramped in the space for more than half an hour, everyone gets tense.

A recent sampling, edited for obscenities:

"Push, push."

"I am in PAIN."

"Chill out."

"You're going to break my leg."

"It's not your leg I'm worried about."

A bio-chemical specialist standing outside said, "I need your least essential man."

The person he was asking for, like a canary to the coal mine, would be the first to open his mask, just a little, to test the air for lethal substance.

A suggestion rang out. "Where's Slane?"

The kidding appears to be mostly good-hearted, and Slane often invites an extra touch of attention.

At lunch, the troops usually don't go to mess. Instead, they have a Meal Ready to Eat, known as an MRE. It's a brown cardboard container that holds a freeze-dried entree (to be heated by a pouch activated by water) and side dishes like peanuts, jalapeno cheese spread, a pastry, cocoa beverage powder, M&Ms and crackers. The contents are the subject of frequent trading.

Slane, in particular, makes a lot of noise when trying to make a swap.

"What's wrong with peanut butter," he asks the platoon when no one will give him cheese. "Look, it's a very popular item, very nutritional. You spread it on a plain cracker and it's it's sardines."

A few minutes later, he leaned over Staff Sgt. Thomas Melnyk, a man of much greater weight and stature, and said "Sarge, I'd like to introduce you to the word of the day. It is `cerebellum.' Do you know what that is?"

When one of his bosses barked a test order for putting on one's NBC mask—"Gas! Gas! Gas!"—Slane just stared at him, grinning, for several seconds before responding. He sometimes answers routine questions with "I am not at liberty to say" and has an unfortunate, and often ill-timed, habit of including people's mother's names in his rebuttals.

His company's Humvees are still on a ship in transit from the United States, so drills are conducted on foot. Groups of three walk out into the desert, speaking with one another on a radio as though they were encountering enemy tanks. Slane seems amused by the exercise, and makes a show of pretending to turn the steering wheel and change gears. (His Humvee has an automatic transmission.)

The first platoon spares no detail in putting Slane back into his place.

When a fellow soldier, several notches in rank above Slane, left the tent a few days ago, he asked Slane to guard his Ranger flag and picture of his girlfriend.

A few moments later, seven guys jumped on Slane. They wrestled him to the ground and bound his hands and ankles to a chair with plastic straps like those used by police for crowd control. His mouth, legs and, in a nod to the surrealist school, left eye were covered with duct tape. The flag was wrapped around him, and the picture of the girlfriend was taped to Slane's forehead. He was soon released, but only after several snapshots were taken, with his buddies posing beside him.

In typical Slane fashion, he didn't seem fazed and, in fact, bragged for a couple days that it had taken so many people to take him down.

All in all, Slane's time in the Middle East has been OK, he said, dribbling some tobacco juice into an ever-present spit bottle.

"I didn't really know what to expect," he said, shrugging his shoulders. Asked how he pictures the war in his mind's eye, Slane said, "just driving a truck, hoping everything goes all right."

Private Slane may turn 20 while he's on this mission, somewhere in the desert.

His birthday is the Fourth of July.


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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq+private