CAMP PENNSYLVANIA, KUWAITStaff Sgt. Thomas Bevins lay on top of a sandbagged bunker, scanning the berms before him with his spotting scope. For minutes, he would stare at a berm, looking and searching. An hour earlier he had sent his two rookies, Spc. Wilson Acosta and Pvt. Jayden Johnson, into the berms. Now he had to find them.
Three weeks ago, when they first arrived here in the Kuwaiti desert, it took exactly five minutes for Bevins to find Acosta and Johnson. Now after three weeks of learning to dig into sand piles and blend into the desert, Acosta and Johnson were nowhere to be found. "It's just a game of hide-and-seek," Bevins says.
As President Bush's deadline approached on Wednesday, the infantrymen of the Army's 101st Airborne Division were honing their desert skills. They would not speak about their orders, but all around Camp Pennsylvania and nearby Camp New Jersey preparations were afoot to move and make war.
For the past three weeks, Bevins has been teaching his soldiers how to hide in the desert. He will be with them when they conduct their scouting missions for infantry troops, but they need to know how to work unaided. "If I go down," Bevins says, "they have to complete the mission."
(Julian Barnes for USN&WR)
The lessons of the past three weeks seem to be sinking in, at least for Acosta and Johnson. Another squad leader, Sgt. Zed Shipley, thought he had found the guys. He jumped down and walked to the berm with a radio in his hand. But five minutes later he walked back. Acosta and Bevins were not where he thought they were. "Sergeant Bevins, our guys are hid like a son of a b----."
Ten minutes more and the training is over. Shipley points to a ridge, and Bevins aims his scope. The berm looks unbroken save for a slight discoloration. On Bevins's order, Acosta and Johnson rise from the berm. Three weeks in the desert and they are adepts.
Johnson has been in the 101st all of two months, so the past three weeks have been intense. But his training has given him a measure of confidence; he could see his sergeants, and they could not see him. "If we were snipers we could see them all," he says.
All of the recon teams are trained and anxious for things to begin, says Sgt. James Peace as he stands by Bevins, watching the training. "I am ready to start," Peace says. "I am ready to get started."
It is not just Peace who is ready for war.
The members of the 326th Engineering Battalion were making their final preparations by shaving each other's heads. As dust blew around him, Cpl. Gustabo Acosta, 25, lathered up the scalp of Sgt. Mike Welch, then carefully drew his Gillette Mach 3 Turbo razor over the scalp, cutting every last hair follicle. A clean-shaven head is practical. Blowing dust gets ground into even the shortest of haircuts, grinding into the scalp. But there is an even more important reason for the ritual. "This," says Acosta, "is the time for our game faces."
For the past three weeks Welch and Acosta, members of the 326th, were training in the desert, breaching berms, blowing holes in buildings, and removing obstacles. "If there is something in the way, we will get through it," Acosta says. But training is coming to an end, and the time for the final psyche-up had arrived. And for Welch, it was a clean-shaven head and a viewing of Black Hawk Down. To some that might be an odd choice with which to prepare for a fight, but not to Welch. "It gets me pumped up," he says.
But under the surface, said the engineers, there was tension. Sgt. Wesly Lafortune, who was helping with the head shaving, said his family was at the forefront of his mind. Lafortune's pregnant wife is due at the end of April, and he will most likely miss the birth of his second child. "The main thing you hope for is that it goes right and you come home safe," Lafortune says. "That is all you can ask for."