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Paratroopers getting used to missile alerts

CHAMPION MAIN, Kuwait—Another missile alert Monday sent the paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division scrambling into the concrete-and-sandbag bunkers alongside their tents and pulling on their gas masks.

The soldiers have learned to handle the whooping sirens fairly well after at least a dozen alarms since the war began last week. Monday's alert, though, was an uncomfortable reminder that Saddam Hussein's military hasn't yet been defanged.

The troopers in the 82nd acknowledge each other with "Hoo-ah!" an all-purpose exclamation that conveys enthusiasm, affirmation or even wonderment, depending on the setting. Think of it as the Army equivalent of combining "You da man!" with "Forget-about-it."

Some of us had grown cocky about our distance from the Iraqi border and the difficulty that Saddam's missiles would have reaching us. Some of us—OK, that would be me—were cracking jokes during the last race to the bunker Friday.

That time there had been a thud. It was deep and resonant and echoed across the camp.

The battalion commander, Lt. Col. Steve Smith, a sharp West Pointer with a runner's trim build, isn't easily unnerved. He parachuted into Panama in 1989 and commanded an artillery battery in the first Persian Gulf War. He glanced in the direction of the thud and keyed the microphone on his radio.

"Guys," he ordered calmly. "Let's get in the bunkers."

You don't have to say things like that twice.

The troopers from the 2nd battalion of the 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment jammed inside, cheek-to-machine-gun.

My suggestion of singing "100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" drew no takers.

For those with no military experience, who include me, life in a military encampment at wartime requires a cultural shift and an acceptance of porta-potties. The 82nd has assembled some pieces of infrastructure that units farther out in the field would envy, but the conditions remain relatively unpleasant.

The missile alerts last week led to the required wearing of flak jackets and Kevlar helmets by everyone, an extra 30 pounds of wardrobe wherever you go: the chow line, the shower or the latrine. That requirement was lifted Saturday when it appeared that any Iraqi threat within range had been trampled by the 3rd Infantry Division—the liberation of our neck and shoulder muscles.

There's a scene early in the movie "Stripes" in which John Candy explains to his platoon that he joined the Army to lose weight, a feat that never could be accomplished at the lard haven known as the 82nd's mess tent. Every meal features the fatty meat of your choice and, almost without fail, fried potatoes cut in some fashion to make you think you're having something different from the fried potatoes at the previous meal. There is salad, followed by troughs of thick, mayonnaise-laden dressings. There's whole milk and, often, a freezer of ice cream bars. These young men's arteries may capitulate before the Iraqis do.

A "luxury" added to the camp about a week after the 82nd's mid-February arrival was several trailers outfitted with showers. The soldiers are encouraged to shower only every two or three days to conserve water. This creates a challenging hygiene regimen in a desert environment with lots of sun and ubiquitous powdery sand.

With the onset of bombing last week, commanders in the 82nd must keep their troopers in camp or nearby as the unit awaits orders to move out. Officers come up with training exercises within the compound to keep their men and women as prepared and occupied as possible.

Somewhat surprising, and refreshingly reassuring, is the lack of eagerness to charge into battle among the paratroopers. There is no palpable zest for combat, only an anticipation of getting their deployment over with. Occasionally, a soldier expresses some lust for combat, but it is rare. The overwhelming majority of the troopers, from the young men fresh out of high school to the gravelly throated veteran sergeants, are in no hurry to go kill.


(Johnson reports for The Charlotte Observer.)


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