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Delta Company waits to join war

CAMP NEW YORK, Kuwait—For the soldiers of Delta Company, the war to the north comes to them in rumors and from the TV at battalion headquarters, whenever they can get time to watch it.

The Humvee company was the last batch of the Army's 101st Airborne Division, from Fort Campbell, Ky., to fly to Kuwait. They got off the plane about two weeks ago.

The men—there are no women in the infantry front lines—came ready to fight, but so far they've engaged only practice targets. Sand and rainstorms alike—along with cargo ships that have been slow to arrive—have made progress difficult for Delta Company and others in the 101st's 2nd Brigade.

So they sat in their tents Tuesday night, cleaning their machine guns with barber's brushes. A group of men played spades. A young lieutenant got a haircut. Heavy rain outside beat on the sides of the tent, as it had all day.

But even as they bobbed their heads to the ever-present rap and R&B music coming from a CD player and small speakers, the soldiers were ready for the first hint of a missile warning siren. The shrill warning comes at all hours, and often brings bleary-eyed soldiers stumbling into the darkness, bio-chemical masks on and headed for the bunker. On some nights, soldiers are already awake when the alarm sounds; their eyes jerked open by the sound of explosions overhead.

There have been several shifts in mission for Delta—the result of constant adjustments in the war plan—and with each change there's a new scramble.

"Every little thing adds to the frustration," said Sgt. Christopher Valdez, a 24-year-old from Albuquerque, N.M. "The longer we're here, the more stuff they find to load on our trucks, and the more things they find to nitpick."

Lying on the floor in Valdez's tent, Pvt. Ronnie McClain was writing a letter to his ex-fiancee. He estimated that he's dropped 15 letters to friends and family so far. McClain, 20, said he self-censored the correspondence.

"I don't really tell them much. I don't let them know that I'm kind of nervous about it," he said. McClain, of Merced, Calif., said he preferred to worry privately.

"I go through different scenarios, like I drive through and get ambushed and the weapon jams and it comes down to hand-to-hand—what would I do?" he asked. "What would I do if I got captured?

There's a sense of guilt among some about not being on the front lines with their fellow soldiers.

"Seeing everybody else go, I want to go pull my weight, do my share," said Pvt. David Halliwell. The 32-year-old from New York City left his job installing commercial kitchen ventilation systems and joined the Army after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He and his 7-year-old son had stood on a street in Brooklyn, watching the two World Trade Center towers crumble. The image, he said, was too much to bear.

So far, Halliwell said, the Iraqi war remains an abstraction.

"It still doesn't seem real; I don't know why," he said. "Maybe reality hasn't set in. Maybe it will when we cross that border."


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