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`Embedded' journalists in Italy savor final days before shipping out

VICENZA, Italy—The war hasn't started yet for the 173rd Airborne brigade based here, but it's close. It will mean a big change of circumstances for the troops and for the four reporters embedded with them.

There are no sandstorms here in this picture-postcard city, and the Meals-Ready-to-Eat are packed away. Instead, journalists are dining at the local trattorias—or, one night, at dinner hosted by one of the civilians in the public affairs office.

The 173rd, which has a storied lineage in World War II and Vietnam, is the light infantry paratrooper unit of the Southern European Task Force, designed to be able to deploy to hot spots on short notice.

Embedded reporters have been granted full access to high-level planning meetings and grunt-level training, but at the end of the day, they, like many of the soldiers, can leave the post and go home to comfort.

But Lt. Col. Thomas Collins, the task force's public affairs officer, cautioned the reporters not to get too comfortable.

"Live this up while it lasts, guys, because pretty soon you'll be in the same boat as your colleagues," he said.

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CHAMPION MAIN, Kuwait _The history of the Slinky, a commercial promoting abstinence and ``Larry King Live'': Watch them all on Armed Forces Network.

Paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division encamped in the Kuwaiti desert, eight time zones and nearly 7,000 miles from home, have only one television outlet. The Armed Forces Network is piped into the mess tent on a giant-screen television but serves as more of a between-bites distraction than a source of entertainment or information.

"It's better than staring at the walls of the tent," said Nicole Robinette, 19, of Las Vegas, serving with the 407th forward support battalion.

The network does splice in news from all four major networks but not live news. AFN also produces its own reports, including a recent broadcast with two male anchors, one in coat-and-tie and the other in dress uniform.

Since their viewers include thousands of 19- and 20-year-olds, it's not surprising that some of AFN's programming and commercials are targeted at teen-agers, including segments from Channel One, the network created for broadcasting to schools. A Channel One anchor recently bragged that their reporter had been living on an aircraft carrier for "nearly a week." Just a blink of time to those who have been deployed for months.

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CAMP MAINE, Kuwait—The difference between the way the United States fights a war and the way the rest of the world fights can be summed up in athletics, one soldier said.

"Most of the world likes soccer—and it's a good game," said 36-year-old Maj. Nick Jordan of Tampa, Fla. "But it's nowhere near the complexity of football."

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CAMP PENNSYLVANIA, Kuwait—The soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division have completed a pre-combat ritual as old as the division itself. They shaved their heads.

The tradition goes back to June 5, 1944, when members of the then-new 101st emerged with Mohawk hairstyles before parachuting behind German lines in the Normandy invasion. It was a statement of fierceness, individuality and machismo that has survived through every conflict since.

"That means they are locked, loaded and ready," said Army spokesman Max Blumenfeld. "This is their D-Day."

Army regulations now prohibit Mohawks, but the 20,000 soldiers of the division, known as the Screaming Eagles, used electric clippers then razors, to "peel" their heads in preparation for war.

"It's the other side of Hell now," said Sgt. Michael Ball as he dragged a razor across the head of PFC Dusty Mayes. "We're ready to do what we're trained to do."

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(Ken Dilanian, Mark Johnson, S. Thorne Harper and Jeff Wilkinson contributed to this report.)

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

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