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Among the infantry a gritty, hot life with a few simple pleasures

ASSEMBLY AREA BALER, Kuwait—For the infantryman who spends two months of his life living in the dirt, waiting for war, life comes to revolve around the simple things, like sleep, chow and mail. Stuck in the desert, cut off from the world, you can never get enough of all three.

So, when a 2-{ ton "deuce and a half" truck loaded with mail rolls into camp as the sun is going down, life suddenly gets about as good as it's going to get.

The 150 men of A co., 1-30 Infantry, 3rd Infantry Division, from Fort Benning, Ga., have been in Kuwait since mid-January. They're encamped about 35 miles north of Kuwait City, awaiting the call to action.

Nicknamed "Apache," A co. is as pumped and primed for combat as any U.S. military unit in theater. Assigned to Task Force 3-7 Infantry, 1st Brigade Combat Team, Apache will be among the first soldiers to crash through the berm into southern Iraq when the call for war comes. But right now, waiting is the only game in town.

With the deuce in camp, the men of Apache emerge from their Bradley Fighting Vehicles—positioned in a combat screen a half-mile from end-to-end—like shipwreck survivors setting upon some newfound booty freshly washed ashore. Most of them haven't bathed in days. They're caked in dust and sweat, their uniforms and bodies the same dun-colored hue of the Kuwaiti desert.

The youngest man in Apache company is 17. The oldest is 40. They are 150 men with hopes and dreams that they want to survive this war.

Second Lt. Mike Washburn, 32, from Yorktown, Va., is one of Apache's most seasoned veterans. A former noncommissioned officer with the 75th Ranger Regiment, he recently decided to become an officer because the pay and retirement benefits are better. He's got 13 years of Army service under his belt, but has yet to experience war. He is hoping that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein will finally give him that chance.

"This is my last hurrah," he said. "The last chance I'll get to be down in the trenches with the boys."

Washburn has a common touch from his long years as an NCO that appears to go over well with the men.

He ambles over to the deuce and a half, where two young privates are in the back, handing out letters and packages. Washburn's platoon sergeant, Sgt. 1st Class Scott Franklin, 30, from Grand Tower, Ill., shuffles through a clutch of letters.

"Did I get anything, platoon daddy?" Washburn calls out.

"Nah," says Franklin.

"Did the boys get anything?"

"A few."

"How about you?"

"Yeah, one," says Franklin.

"What is it?" asks Washburn. "Another letter from the airline company?"

Franklin doesn't say anything.

"How about you, Maty?" Washburn asks.

1st Lt. Jersey Matyszczuk, 30, is a native of Jelenia Gora, Poland. He emigrated to the United States 10 years ago. "Communism had fallen to pieces," Maty says in a thick Polish accent that he swears he'll never lose no matter how hard he tries. "I thought it was a chance for a better life."

Maty worked briefly in a New York City chop shop, until he realized the cars he was stripping down were actually stolen. "So, I got out of there, man, and I mean fast." He moved to Philadelphia, working "thousands" of jobs, mostly in construction and finally for two years as a pressman for The Philadelphia Inquirer. He taught himself English by reading and watching television. He put himself through school at the Community College of Philadelphia and then Temple University. After college, he decided to become an Army officer.

"I owe something to this country," he says. "And this is a way of paying it back."

Maty is known as the most happy-go-lucky man in Apache company. "He keeps me going," says Washburn. "I've never seen him down about anything."

Washburn asks Maty again if he got any mail. Everybody knows that he's got a sweetheart back in Philly, even if he doesn't talk about her much.

"Nah, I didn't get nothin," Maty says. "But hey, I'm a happy man."

Washburn asks again if anyone has seen a letter for him. One of the privates in the back of the deuce says there was nothing for him on this trip.

"The story of my life, man," Washburn says, shaking his head. "The story of my life."

1st Lt. Blaine Kusterle, 24, from St. Petersburg, Fla., opens a large box his mother sent. He pulls out a box of Fruit Snacks, a large bag of Sweet Tarts and a package of about two dozen Gillette disposable razor blades. Razors are an essential item in the field. But where baths are infrequent at best and dust cakes exposed skin around the clock, a single blade can last for no more than a couple of shaves. Kusterle holds up the razor blades and says to no one in particular.

"Man, didn't I score? Didn't I score?"

Chow this evening was hamburgers, baked beans, canned peaches, vanilla pudding and packets of peanut butter and jelly. The soldiers call the burgers "track pads" because they resemble the rubber track plates on their Bradley Fighting Vehicles and M113 personnel carriers. The burgers taste like soybeans, but any chow out here for these men, especially if it's hot, beats a dinner of prepackaged rations known as Meals Ready to Eat, or MREs. Though they're decidedly more flavorful than their Vietnam-era C-ration predecessors, MREs are unpopular with many troops. They call them "Meals Rejected by Everybody."

Maty, who is now serving chow to passing troops, hands each soldier packets of peanut butter and jelly. There's really nothing to put them on beside hamburger buns, but Maty is undeterred.

"Hey, man, you gotta take one," he says, thrusting the packets into the hand of every soldier who passes through the chow line. "They're issue, man. Everyone gets one. You can't give them back."

Pfc. Damien Norwood, from Bar Harbor, Maine, sits down in a camp chair at the head of the chow line and begins strumming a guitar. Soon, another soldier joins him with a harmonica. Within minutes, they're belting out requests like The Grateful Dead's "Uncle John's Band" and their own version of the Kuwaiti desert blues.

1st Sgt. Michael "Todd" Hibbs, 36, of Boise, Idaho, watches the scene from a short distance away. He said Norwood approached him at Fort Benning, shortly before they deployed to Kuwait and asked sheepishly if he could bring his guitar.

"Hell, yeah, I said, take it," Hibbs said. "You should've seen his eyes light up. Anything for morale, you know. Morale in this company used to be so bad. Just ask anybody. Now look at them."

The first sergeant is ranking NCO in an infantry company. The men, even the officers, often refer to him as "Top." It's a sign of respect. Commanders come and go every two years, and a bad one can be tolerated for a while, but first sergeants tend to stick around for a lot longer, and they can make or break a company's morale.

The men of Apache agree that they've got a good first sergeant in Hibbs, even though he only took over his position in August. Hibbs says the men have a good leader in company commander Capt. John Whyte.

Whyte, 31, of Billarica, Mass., will soon lead these men into combat. For him, for most of them, it will be the first time.

Whyte knows that some of them may not make it home.

"The most obvious hope is that we can accomplish the mission and bring everyone back in as good a shape as we brought them here," Whyte said. "I know we can accomplish whatever mission they give us. But bringing everyone back, that's the tricky part. It'll wear on you."

As the sun slipped toward the horizon, and the desert quickly grew chilly, the soldiers of Apache company appeared unconcerned about the task ahead. They ate good chow. They read their mail. A few of them sang the blues. For this moment, at least, the possibility and uncertainty of war seemed far away. They were just young men, far away from their families. Simple pleasures were enough.


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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-WARPREP