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Bibles, family photos, extra ammo: Soldiers pack carefully before heading to battle

CHAMPION MAIN, Kuwait—The pack-a-day smoker stuffs some Marlboro regulars in his backpack. Doting fathers slide photos of their children inside their helmets, smiling faces that peek out from behind the webbing. The faithful grab Bibles for a little extra security. The wary pack extra ammunition for the same reason.

The Army regulates, as it does so many aspects of soldiers' lives, much of what they take into battle. But into the crevices of rucksacks and the slender folds of pockets, U.S. troops who are in Kuwaiti camps today but in the Iraqi desert tomorrow find tiny spaces for something of their own.

They choose carefully. What do you pack when you are being sent out to kill? Or when you might be going out to die?

Spc. John Zellers, 28, of the 2nd Battalion of the 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment, carries both cigarettes and a tin of Copenhagen smokeless tobacco, since he's prohibited from firing up a smoke at night when they reach combat. He has a cross around his neck and a keychain bearing a devotional verse about footprints in the sand.

Zellers, a car stereo whiz from Jeannette, Pa., is among the 3,500 paratroops from the Fort Bragg, N.C.-based 82nd Airborne Division who are awaiting their orders to join the invasion of Iraq. Their backpacks, neatly set against the ends of their cots, are bulging with required gear: extra T-shirts, a mess kit, MREs (meals ready to eat), the E-tool combination shovel and hatchet, canteens that hold 6 quarts of water and, as "Lieutenant Dan" told Forrest Gump, dry socks.

If they wear glasses, they might switch to the durable, brown, `70s-style rectangular pairs the Army issued them, spectacles so ugly they have been dubbed "birth control glasses."

Any personal gear adds to the minimum 90 pounds of backpack gear and 40 pounds of flak vest, helmet and ammo. If they jump, the parachute puts another 65 pounds on them.

"One guy, his rucksack weighed almost as much as he did," said 1st Lt. Joel Blaschke, of Tega Cay, S.C., who joined the Army to pay off his college loans and now serves in the 2nd of the 319th artillery. He was talking about a 155-pound mortar operator two bunks over, who, with extra rounds, hauls a 135-pound backpack.

Blaschke, 26, will put photos in his helmet and Trident gum in his pocket.

"Hubba Bubba (bubble gum) is good, but only for a minute," he said. "Sugar-free gum lasts longer."

Around their necks, some 82nd troops hang medals of St. Michael the Archangel, the patron saint of paratroopers, next to their dogtags and PIC cards, the computer chips that hold their medical data. A medic can slide the card into a Palm Pilot-sized reader to retrieve vital information.

Sgt. 1st Class Eric Sifford, who grew up on a Rockwell, N.C., dairy farm, carries a zippered pouch that holds a notebook and New Testament text with, appropriately, a desert camouflage cover. He and his wife, Paulette, were married in January and are following identical reading schedules.

"We read the same Scripture each day," said Sifford, 40, an Arab linguist with the 313th Military Intelligence Battalion.

The packing choice is sometimes easy.

Sgt. Marvin Christiansen, 30, of Davenport, Iowa, wasted little time in ruling out his tiny digital camera.

"Grenade. (Or) camera?" he said. "Hmmm. There's never such a thing as too much ammo."

He's cramming in 250 bullets, 40 more than the required minimum.

Sgt. 1st Class Dale Roberts, a wisecracking G.I. from the 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, flashes a faux "South Park" bus pass from the animated comedy show.

"That's to fool the enemy in case I'm captured," said Roberts, 33, of Covington, La. "They'll think I'm `Stan.' "

Soldiers routinely used to write letters—which were then tucked in pockets or passed to buddies—to be delivered to family or loved ones if they were killed. Few grunts still do so, said Staff Sgt. Rowell Guevarra, 27, of Redondo Beach, Calif., and the 325th.

"Bad karma," he said.

Staff Sgt. Adam Chacon, a 34-year-old from Phoenix with the 2nd Battalion, 319th Artillery, is among the few who have penned such messages. He sent his wife a letter with some helpful instructions about what to do if he is killed, but also with a message for his children.

"I don't want my children to grow up hating the Army because it took their Daddy," he said.

Lt. Col. Steve Smith's zippered plastic bag of personal items betrays his role as commander of the 2nd Battalion of the 319th Artillery. He has a family photo and casualty forms in case he is wounded or killed, but also cards outlining combat rules of engagement, instructions for taking prisoners and a code of conduct if he is captured.

These tiny personal items are often the last things the paratroopers pack before they shuffle aboard aircraft to jump into or land in enemy territory.

Crammed into the plane, weighted down with gear and isolated by the engine noise, the soldiers act one of three ways en route to battle, Smith said.

"Some guys will stay focused on the mission, whether it's reviewing the map or going over a checklist. Some will talk and joke around," Smith said. "But the vast majority will go inside themselves, think, maybe sleep. As a leader, you're looking around at people's eyes, trying to reassure them—especially the young ones—that they're ready."


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