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Tank soldiers in limbo as they wait to deploy

FORT RILEY, Kan.—Some day very soon, the tank soldiers of 1st Battalion, 13th Armor of the Army's 1st Infantry Division will head overseas. They expect to face fighting in Iraq. They plan to be gone at least six months.

Until they leave, however, they live in limbo.

The single soldiers stay in barracks that are bare except for combat gear. Personal items like computers and televisions have been boxed up and put into storage. Most gear heads have sent away their tricked-up cars, with chrome wheels and fancy sound systems, to be safeguarded by relatives.

The men can't venture far from the fort's rolling prairie. They must be ready to leave on two hours' notice.

Here are vignettes on how three soldiers are killing their last free time on American soil:

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THE FATHER

Leaning forward on the living-room couch, father and son fixate on a television as they press buttons on hand-held video-game controllers. On the screen, they make animated soldiers run forward, firing weapons.

The game is called Desert Storm, the same name for the last war with Iraq.

Father and son huddle close, fighting the enemy together.

But in the middle of their imaginary battle, 6-year-old Nikolos looks up at visitors and blurts out: "He's going to war."

He points to his father, 28-year-old Sgt. Christopher Burns, a radio repairman.

Burns' combat helmet, rucksack and duffel bag sit on a polished wood floor against a living-room wall of their duplex on a street of cookie-cutter, near-the-fort homes, each with a soldier's name and rank posted on the front.

Burns, who grew up in Phoenix, Ariz., and whose family has followed him from fort to fort, never played any games with his father. He didn't meet him but once—when he was 23—and hasn't seen him since.

The emptiness led him to a conviction: He would be a good father. He would be the best father. He would always be there, along with his wife, Corey.

The hurt of knowing he won't see Nik or his 4-year-old daughter, Alex, for up to a year can't be measured. Yes, it's his duty as a soldier to go, but it requires him to violate his promise as a father.

It's why he works the angles to get leave to spend his last days before deployment playing video games with Nik. It's why he lets Alex to jump into his lap and playfully hit him.

"Why are you so hyper?" he asks, hugging her close, laughing.

Around soldiers of equal or lower rank, Burns is a joker, often sarcastic. Laugh lines mark the corners of his mouth. No one fires a more rapid or comically lethal comeback. But his forehead creases and he sounds utterly serious when he relates something his son told him.

"He asked me if I die, would I come back as an angel and talk to him.

"He understands a lot more than I thought."

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THE TALKER

Anytime the phone rings on the third floor hall of barracks No. 7618, it's gotta be for Private David Kersey II. He spends most of his free time getting calls or making them.

Kersey, from Baton Rouge, La., is standing in the hall outside his barracks room, telling others about how he gabs with his fiancee, Sondra Armstrong, every chance he gets. They are high school sweethearts and plan to marry in January, if he gets back in time.

Under a fluorescent light, his hairless chest looks pale. From the waist down, he still wears his work clothes—camouflage pants properly tucked into shiny, black combat boots.

Grinning, he pulls out a picture of Sondra. "Check out this hot lady," he says excitedly.

His blue eyes twinkle as he shows off her picture. He is a talker in love.

At 19, Kersey is one of the youngest and most light-hearted men in Bravo Company. Except for a few facial scars, one from where a baseball socked him, he has a sweet, baby face. Although not yet old enough to drink legally in Kansas, he has worked as a logger in Louisiana's pine forests and has competed in junior bull riding.

Standing in the hallway, he demonstrates how a bull rider grips a rope with one hand and holds his other hand up high for balance.

Now this wiry 133-pounder is headed to war, to drive a 70-ton Abrams battle tank against the enemy.

But until he leaves, he'll keep eating up his pay talking and talking and talking to his love, Sondra.

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THE SCHOLAR

Private Tim Watson is a 34-year-old academic.

In his busy, first-floor barracks hallway, next to a noisy snack machine, Watson sits serenely at a folding table. Dressed in his camouflage uniform, he turns pages of a thick, heavy German dictionary and writes meticulously in composition books.

His brown eyes look tired. He is still on duty, taking his 24-hour turn as a "CQ"—short for charge of quarters. Basically he is a dorm monitor for the young, mostly single soldiers who live in the barracks.

But in these idle moments of his shift, he works on his dissertation to receive a doctorate in philosophy of religion from Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Mich.

As he looks up from his papers, a soldier in his early 20s absentmindedly leans over Watson's books and belches loudly. Watson doesn't even notice.

Watson is writing what he calls "a history of the way we think about theology." The research is based on his translation of papers written by an obscure, turn-of-the-century German theologian named Otto Ritschl, hence the German dictionary.

When he is not focused on his dissertation, Watson works as an Alpha Company supply clerk. He is new to the Kansas fort and lives in the barracks while his wife and two children remain in Crowley, Texas, near Fort Worth.

Once he gets to Iraq, he will drive a 5-ton supply truck. But he will take his books with him; in between combat, he's sure there will be down time to work on his dissertation.

Watson joined the Army partly to help pay for college. He wants to teach college courses on religion, philosophy and ethics. But for now, he feels comfortable in his blended world of Army and academics.

"The Army keeps me grounded," he says. "It's easy for a scholar to get so caught up in the theoretical that they're not sure what the everyday person is going through."

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

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

Iraq

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