Posted: Mar. 8, 2003 Desert Duty It's a long way from Indiana
BY JULIAN E. BARNES Julian E. Barnes, a U.S. News senior editor, is reporting from Camp Arifjan, the Army's logistical hub, where thousands of reservists and active-duty soldiers provide support for combat troops in the field.
CAMP ARIFJAN, KUWAITOn the perimeter of U.S. Central Command's logistics hub, the men of 1-293 Infantry Battalion stare into the Kuwaiti desert, fighting wind, sand, and boredom as they patrol the border of this Army base.
Inside the base are the logistics that support the massive American buildup on the Iraqi border. Everyday tanks, trucks, and transports flow into Camp Arifjan, where they are tuned up, outfitted with new tracking equipment, and then sent north. Shuttling back and forth, soldiers pick up new medical supplies, meals ready to eat, and fuel before moving forward to the border.
Outside the base is Kuwait and ambivalence. Some vacationing Kuwaitis have invited the men on patrol to their desert tents for a meal. Others have given the American soldiers dirty looks or shouted at them. One even fired a shotgun at the outpost called Scarab Corner.
(Julian Barnes for USN&WR)
Worried that some Kuwaitis were getting too close, the Americans built up an outer perimeter of berms. That keeps out most of the Kuwaitis who were wasting away their desert vacation doing doughnuts with their 4x4s as they shoot rats on the base outer wall. But many of the Bedouin herders ignore the berms. And their sheep seem unfamiliar with barbed wire. "We have to keep a lookout for terrorist infiltration or sheep caught in the wire," says Sgt. Rick Besecker, 30, of South Bend, Ind. "I've had to help herd a few sheep." First Sgt. Charlie Cox laughs: "And keep our guys from shooting one and eating it."
The 1-293 Infantry Battalion is an Army Reserve unit from Indiana assigned the mission of protecting Arifjan. Most of the battalion has been in Kuwait since early Januaryand has lost one member already. On February 6, Spc. Brian Clemens was killed when the humvee in which he was riding overturned. The death, memorialized by a black wristband worn by many soldiers, put a measure of soberness on the battalion's C Company.
Much of the company's work is deadly dullstaring out into the desert for hours, under hard conditions. Scarab Corner, named after the dung beetles that make their home there, is hot and sandy during the day and freezing at night. The corner looks as if it could be a watch post in World War II. Built into a berm is a small wooden shelter lined with sandbags. Inside, a soldier aims a machine gun out over the desert terrain. Next to Scarab Corner is a $150,000 heated and air-conditioned guard tower. It didn't last long. The Kuwaiti desert wind bent it in half. Sergeant Cox, who is 36 and knows how young soldiers behave, thinks that is just as well. Warm towers make soldiers sleepy. Standing outside alone in the cold causes people to snap awake. "When you knock out the technology, it still comes down to a guy in position holding their ground," Sergeant Cox says.
Many of the men here are ready to go home. Spc. Justin Wiley, 21, has a fiancée back home in Monticello, Ind. The wedding date will be set whenever he gets home. He will get there after Saddam Hussein falls or the United States calls off its invasion. "I cannot wait for it to start," Wiley says, standing inside Scarab Corner and looking out across the desert. "The sooner it starts, the sooner we go home."
Many of the young soldiers here express similar feelings. But there are a few perfectly happy in the desert. "I am not missing home," says Sgt. 1st Class Scott Pepper. "I've never been on deployment."
Sergeant Pepper is 34 and has a wife and two kids back home in Fort Wayne, Ind., where during peacetime he works for the city, putting up traffic lights and painting street lines. Like Joseph Heller's Major Major Major, Sergeant Pepper holds the rank he was destined for. When he was a private, noncommissioned officers would tease him and ask if he yearned to be Sergeant Pepper. He has the rank now, but still the jokes come every day. "I don't even like the Beatles," says Sergeant Pepper. "I am a Garth Brooks guy." Sergeant Pepper lets it all roll off him. He is not an anxious man. And he is content to wait for diplomacy to play out. "Combat patience," he says. "You have to have it."