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Support crews struggle to get water to combat troops

NEAR NAJAF, Iraq—A water buffalo, as soldiers call the huge tankers that carry that precious fluid, arrived Monday at a combat support camp, giving some the first chance to wash in nearly two weeks. But water remains in short supply, as thousands of combat troops push north so fast that support crews are struggling to keep up.

Monday afternoon, Capt. Kelvin Brown of the 3-69 Armor Battalion embodied that problem. His battalion of 950 soldiers had been fighting in the early morning darkness 13 miles to the north, shelling and getting shelled. Now it was time to move the fight closer to Karbala.

But there was one huge glitch: not enough water.

Brown had been looking for water for hours, walking from tent to tent in the huge combat support city that has sprung up in the desert here in only a week.

He and his soldiers were hot, dusty, tired and most of all thirsty. "I've wasted a whole day looking for water. You'd think the people out there fighting could get water," he said. "But we can't."

He had talked to specialists, sergeants, captains, majors. Everyone referred him to someone else, often to the person he had just asked. But no one could come up with the goods.

When he approached Maj. David Allen of the 7th Combat Support Group, part of the Army's V Corps, Allen offered to walk around with Brown and do some of the pleading.

"They need to move out, but they don't have enough water," Allen told officer after officer, covering a half-mile of desert tents with Brown, of Bartow, Ga.

No one was coming through.

Water had been a problem for days. Four days ago, when they were fighting a mile from the combat support camp, the 3-69 had had to cut its daily water rations in half, from nine liters a day—about nine and a half quarts—to four and a half. Unless they got water now, they would have to halve the supply again as they moved north.

"It's hot. You have to have water," Allen said.

For three hours, Allen negotiated with captains and majors, trying to pull off "a drug deal," Army lingo for taking shortcuts to get supplies. "I have no power here; I'm just trying to help out," Allen said.

As dark was falling, the two soldiers hit pay dirt: Maj. Tim Sullivan of the 13th Combat Support Battalion released 11,000 bottles of water—each 1.5 liters—to the fighting soldiers.

"The supply system is having serious disconnects, but I'm not turning away the soldiers who keep us from having to use these," said Sullivan, pointing to his gas mask.

By dark, after searching all day, Brown had water for two more days of fighting.

"Gotta go," he said. "We're running late for the next battle."


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