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Dispatches from the field in Iraq

OBJECTIVE RAIDERS, Iraq—Time has a reality of its own when you're at war. Back when we were waiting for the invasion to start, the hours crawled by so slowly every day that it seemed as if sundown would never come. Now six days have passed, and most of us wonder where they've gone. But time is creeping again for the Army's 3rd Infantry Division's Apache Company, 1-30th Infantry, Task Force 3-7 Infantry, as we sit somewhere north of Najaf.

Sunday, we outran our fuel and supply trucks, and we're still waiting for them to catch up. That was also before the sandstorm hit. Now, with trucks stretched out for hundreds of miles behind us, nobody, not even the task force commander, can say when we'll get moving again.

Even if we could move, it almost seems impossible. We have been socked in by a sandstorm that is so fierce that if you walk 10 steps from your vehicle you are in danger of being irretrievably lost. Bradley Fighting Vehicles out on the line flicker in and out of sight like ghostly apparitions. When men lie down to sleep, they curl up against the tracks of their vehicles like snow dogs against a howling Arctic wind. And now it has suddenly gotten worse.

The sky has turned orange with dust, and within minutes the day has disappeared completely. The world takes on an apocalyptic glow.

At 4 p.m. it is raining mud. The sky is black, completely gone. We are living in a world that has disappeared. All radio traffic has ceased. Even the artillery that's been booming all day has stopped. The only sounds outside are the howling wind and clanging of a chain somewhere on our vehicle.

None of us has ever seen anything like what is going on outside. Living in a world that has suddenly gone completely dark at the wrong hour evokes a sort of primal fear. It becomes possible for even the most hardened of men among us to believe in the wrath of God.

In the darkness of a M113 armored personnel carrier, one soldier murmurs, "I wonder who we pissed off."

We hunker down in our steel machines like men in submarines under the sea. The air is stale. The only thing we breathe is each other's acrid stench.

Our bodies, clothing, weapons and equipment are coated in an ever-present sheen of powdery, dung-colored moon dust.

Most of us gave up on trying to keep clean days ago. The last showers we had were 10 days ago. That was two days before we left for the border. Since then, our bodies and clothes have become indescribably funky. But personal hygiene, like time itself, becomes relative after a while. The best any of us hopes for anymore is a shave every morning and a fresh pair of socks.

We share each other's bottles of water and food. We all have the same hacking coughs.

But the men of Apache Company are still itching for action.

The combat veterans tell the younger soldiers to be patient, they will get their chance soon enough. The oldest man in Apache Company, a Desert Storm vet, is 40. The youngest just turned 18. For many of these young men, war is still a grand adventure. Most of them are just kids, really. They have yet to lose their illusions. But they all know their day is coming.

I have yet to hear any one of these soldiers say that they truly did not want to be here. Apache Company has had only one conscientious objector, and he was sent back to the rear before I linked up with them 15 days ago. Sure, some of these soldiers do not agree with the war. But that does not stop them from doing their duty. That is the thing that stands out about these men. No matter who they are or where they came from or what they believe personally about this war, they are just young men doing their duty. Pray for them, that they make it home safely and soon.

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(Drew Brown is traveling with the 3rd Infantry Division's First Brigade Combat Team.)

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

Iraq

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