WITH THE 101ST AIRBORNE DIVISION IN CENTRAL IRAQNews travels slowly in the forward camps. Most soldiers here have no access to E-mail or phones. Soldiers get most of their news of the war from gossip passed along. Some commanders stress the big victories, while the enlisted gossips traffic in the horrifying details of captured soldiers.
Some of the troops here have heard at least sketchy details about Sunday's grenade attack that killed two soldiers and injured a dozen others at Camp Pennsylvania, the division's command center in Kuwait. That a fellow soldier in the 101st, Sgt. Asan Akbar, is suspected of committing the attack is a hard fact to handle. "That was a soldier?" asked Pfc. Lindsay Carpenter, "I thought it was an Iraqi." "No, it was a soldier who was under stress," interrupted Pfc. Scott Keuler.
Soldiers far from the main command centers are hungry for news of how the war is progressing. The 101st Airborne Division's Third Brigade gets some news from shortwave or satellite radios, but many of those work only sporadically. So camp gossip becomes the main conduit. Gossips tend to dwell on graphic details of what Iraqis are doing to captured soldiers or the stupidity of Iraqi counterattacks against American tanks. In the Charlie Battery, few details of the war are currently getting disseminated to the troops. In part that is because over the past week various parts of the battery have been moving into position, and the daily conference calls to update soldiers on the war have not yet restarted.
The priority here seems to be on getting news back and forth between family members, not disseminating details of various battles across Iraq. On Thursday, Staff Sgt. Jon Otis traveled among the radar teams scattered nearbyin what is called the area of operations Rakkasanscollecting short E-mail messages from soldiers for Lt. Jason Steger to send out later from the command center's lone E-mail portal. Indeed, although officers have not yet started disseminating war news to soldiers, on their first day in AO Rakkasans they began working on finding ways to send letters back home.
Commanders, says Capt. Pat Costello, have to help keep their troops focused on their job. "They need to be focused on their job. But they can only be focused when they know their family is OK. When there is a family emergency, we feed the news to them as soon as we can."
Costello says it is important to disseminate war news in just the right way. "There are some things you want soldiers to know and some things you don't. That is what you wrestle with. I don't want them to get so scared they can't do their jobs."
It is true that some information about the war can stress soldiers out. This week, a Patriot missile battery radar array was hit with a HARM antiradar missile in a likely friendly-fire attack, not long after the unit had come under attack from small-arms fire while on a convoy into Iraq. After the attack, air defense officers had their soldiers move their control trucks farther away from the radar units, in case an Iraqi or an American missile was to home in on the radar. The radar operators here had heard gossip about the destruction of the Patriot radar but were trying to put such things out of their minds. "I am just trying to focus on my job so I do not flip out," said Pfc. Brooke Bussell. "I just try to pretend that I am in the field dealing with normal problems."
Indeed, in the Army there is no Paxil. Work is the universal prescription for anxiety. At night, when the joking dies down and the shifts are coming to an end, some soldiers get serious. This week Sgt. David Diaz had a soldier come up to him in just such a moment and say he was scared. The army trains sergeants in the kinds of feelings and stress soldiers come under. The details of how to handle the minor cases, though, are left up to the noncommissioned officers themselves. "I said to him, 'Don't sweat it,'" Diaz recounted. "'Just focus on your job and let what happens, happen.'"