Soldiers endure heat, monotony of camp life
KUWAIT — The desert can be harsh, even cruel. Its fine dust, swirled into the air by blast furnace winds, invades every crevice and orifice. The afternoon heat could wilt a cactus.
And as soldiers of G Troop, 10th Cavalry endure life in a forward staging area in Kuwait, 1st Sgt. Bill Taylor begins each day at 4:45 a.m. with music that would wake the dead — or, at the very least, anyone who wasn't alive before Ronald Reagan was president.
One morning, it's "The Grand Illusion" by Styx. On another, Richard Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries," followed by Jim Croce's "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" and a smidgen of Gregorian chant. Or, selections by the Alan Parsons Project with a brief retaliatory strike, orchestrated by Sgt. 1st Class Rick Michaud, that featured a rap tune.
G Troop solders spend several hours daily getting their vehicles and equipment prepared for war, often working in the morning, taking a break in the afternoon when the sun is hottest and then picking up again in the evening.
The daily monotony includes standing in line for the same breakfast (powdered eggs, bacon and potatoes with gravy), standing in line for the same lunch (hamburgers and hot dogs with fries), standing in line for dinner (with a choice between the lunch menu or a mystery plate) and sometimes standing in line to use the portable toilets.
In their time off, soldiers can stand in line to take a shower every few days, stand in line to call home from a phone tent or stand in line to buy a few things at the camp's PX.
Occasionally, there are variations in the routine. The discovery of an 8-foot cobra at nearby camp caused some consternation. The appearance of a few large bags of ice at G Troop's tent — the source is best left unrevealed — was a welcome treat.
G Troop soldiers recently received a briefing from a camp fire marshal and learned it's not a good idea to smoke near their tent, which apparently was waterproofed in a process that involved kerosene, nor to light candles in the tent, nor to ignite the local wildlife.
The last admonition was based on a recent incident at another camp when bored soldiers reportedly set a lizard ablaze with some kind of flammable liquid. The lizard exacted its revenge by running into the soldiers' tent and burning it to the ground.
Stories about monster cobras and flaming suicide lizards may seem apocryphal, but strange happenings do occur in camp.
Earlier this week, G Troop soldiers discovered that 1st Sgt. Taylor's gold-starred cavalry guidon, a replica of the military flag carried by 10th Cavalry "Buffalo Soldiers" more than a century ago, smoldering. A cursory investigation concluded that friction was the culprit. In a stiff breeze, a rope securing the tent to the ground, rubbing against a metal fastener, caught on fire, burned in half, and seared two small holes into the top sergeant's flag.
But most of the time, there's nothing more exciting than the unrelenting heat, sand and hamburgers. Soldiers of G Troop, for the most part, take it in stride.
Sometimes, they even joke about it.
"I'll tell you where we are, we're at the beach," cracked Spc. John Almen, 34, a father of three from Apple Valley, Minn. "We just haven't found the shoreline yet."
Pfc. Phillip Cantu, 21, of Sandusky, Ohio, said adjusting to the heat and dust of the desert has been difficult. "I don't think anybody was ready for it," he said.
Spc. Yia Vang, 22, of Denver, said "work just stops" in the middle of the day because of the heat, with temperatures typically ranging well over 100 degrees.
There's no laundry service, limited water and time, and soldiers typically wear their uniforms for several days. Sweat and the persuasive dust combine to give the uniforms a crusty, starched appearance.
"They kind of mold to you," said Spc. Joseph Wightman, 21, a 1999 graduate of DeSoto High School in DeSoto, Texas.
G Troop's home for several days has been a large mustard-yellow tent with plywood floors. Sand continually swirls through door flaps and deposits itself on every surface. Most soldiers sleep on the floor, atop their sleeping bags and pad. A few brought cots, and the troop's stretchers have been put to use as impromptu sleepers. Cartons of water bottles may serve as card tables or chairs.
The nightly routine includes cleaning weapons, and, when the work is done, some entertainment. Soldiers play spades, dominoes or chess. Many have CD players or Game Boys, and a couple brought DVD players.
"We try to make it as much like home as possible," Cantu said. "A lot of guys will take out pictures of their family and wives and friends and write letters. Sometimes, they just go off into their own little world."
The soldiers know they're only dealing with inconveniences for now, while others in uniform are fighting and risking their lives. They know their time for that is very near.
"We're here for a purpose," Wightman said. "There's a reason we're rushing to get done."