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Relentless missile alerts keep forces on edge

NEAR THE IRAQ BORDER—It's been only two days and the bunker-diving tally is up to nine.

At an air base the military doesn't want precisely identified, missile alerts forced people to whip on gas masks and run to bunkers again and again Friday.

"It's nerve-racking," Airman 1st Class Jillian Hebert, 20, of Johnston, R.I., said as she washed pans in the mess hall. "You never know when it's going to happen."

Most people spent the day with blackened hands and faces, residue from the charcoal-lined clothes they wear to protect themselves against chemical weapons.

"Everybody's pretty nervous," said Senior Airman Ernesto Portunato, 23, of Miami. "Sometimes the television flickers and they jump."

But as the day wore on, the repeated alarms led to a bit of complacency.

"After a while, we've started walking to the bunkers," said Army Pvt. Jernell McFarland, 19, of Arlington, Texas.

"It's kind of like getting a rush, but it's getting old," said Army Spc. Tyrone Davis, 25, who rigs parachutes at the base. "I'm starting to notice that people are getting more relaxed. They put their stuff on, but they are chillin', talking while they go. It's like they are going to hang out."

Still, no one risked taking a shower for fear of getting caught naked when the alert status turned red. "If you get caught in that, it could just be that one time when one of them (the missiles) made it through," Davis said.

The first red alert came Thursday morning, just hours after the United States launched its attack on Iraq. Military officials say four missiles were launched from southern Iraq to Kuwait on Thursday and two more Friday. U.S. Patriot missiles knocked down several. None of the others caused significant damage or injury.

But each real and false alarm disrupts the routine at the air base and other military centers in the Persian Gulf. They also send civilians scrambling for cover.

Every time there's a red alert, Air Force Maj. Richard Ruiz, 46, of Bakersfield, Calif., runs down four flights of stairs from an air control tower to a basement bunker. "You can't choose which one will hit or will have chemicals," he said.

After a powerful boom followed a red alert early Friday afternoon, Ruiz said, "I knew that was the Patriot. I knew there was no time."

Space ran out at a bunker near a mess hall during one afternoon alarm. People passed their extra gear outside to make room, but some people couldn't wait and ran to another shelter as another Patriot boomed overhead.

Later, at another shelter, bunkmates calmed a young servicewoman who was frightened by the overhead noise. "She was crying," said Air Force Sgt. Clarence May, 28, of Waco, Texas. "She kept saying "Are we going to be OK?'"

Because the alarms sounded through the night Thursday, many people on the base tried to catch up on sleep Friday. They napped under desks, in hallways and even in the mess tent.

"It's taking all their strength to get over there to get protected," said Airman 1st Class Mark Aldrette, 21, of San Francisco. "I get up, but as soon as it's yellow, I'm back to sleep," he added, referring to the alarm status when people can leave bunkers and remove gas masks.

"Everything feels heavy," said Air Force Capt. Mareneo Santos, 38, a judge advocate general. His eyelids were swollen. He yawned.

"When you hit a cot, it's suddenly so comfortable."


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