Soldiers' footprints interrupt wind-created ripples in the desert sand in Saudi Arabia in 1990.

Soldiers' footprints interrupt wind-created ripples in the desert sand in Saudi Arabia in 1990. (Randy Pruitt/Stars and Stripes)

IN SAUDI ARABIA, NEAR THE KUWAIT BORDER — Spec. Brian Ridgely stared up into the Milky Way and whispered what everyone else was thinking.

"It's so peaceful and quiet out here it's hard to imagine it being a battlefield."

It was a case of mixing business with pleasure for Ridgely and three other soldiers with the 5th Bn, 6th Cav, which is normally stationed in Wiesbaden, Germany. Their job was to drive to this remote observation post to see whether atmospheric haze at certain hours could be used as concealment for their unit's Apache attack helicopters.

From their vantage point atop a lifeless sand knoll, they could catch not only spectacular sunrises and sunsets, but they also could visualize death and destruction on the vast and distant plain. Images of peace and war made a strange tableau for these friendly, smiling men who thrive on their unit's motto: "Tank Killers."

"Our main purpose in life is to destroy enemy tanks," explained Capt. David Stark, assistant operations officer. "We are the division's ready-response force. We are the first U.S. forces to engage the enemy."

Stark said a few other U.S. troops are in front of them. "But that's the special forces, and they aren't going to fight this battle. They pass the intel (intelligence) hack to our higher headquarters."

The four soldiers, bathed in the garish green glow of chemical light sticks, talked as they sat on fold-out Army cots. From time to time, a meteor dropped from the huge star-packed sky to steal everyone's attention.

"We're going to fight this guy," Stark said of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. "I have no doubt in my mind."

Spec. Miguel Gomez wishes that day would come soon. "I was going to get married in September," said the 22-year-old aviation operations specialist and assistant driver. Desert Shield put his wedding plans on hold.

A brief lull in the conversation produced an eerie silence. There was an electric element of danger in being so close to the front.

"It was the same way in Vietnam at night," said Sgt. Maj. Dean Bentheimer, a soft-spoken 42-year-old.

"You'd hear crickets, and the next minute there was shooting and occasionally rocket fire."

But in this war, it isn't the night that worries them, Daytime employment is their biggest threat against a massive Iraqi tank force.

The AH-64 copter can rule both sky and ground in the darkness, the soldiers said.

"It has a top-line night vision system on board. We can see the targets at our maximum range," Stark said.

However, one other problem also concerns the helicopter unit, which is part of the 12th Aviation Brigade. Soviet-made tanks manned by the Iraqis also are used by Syrians and Egyptians.

"A tank looks like a tank when it's built by the same people," Stark said. "You ain't going to see paint on the side saying this one's friendly and this one ain't.

"There's going to have to be some good coordination or there's going to be a lot of people killed that don't need to be killed."

Bentheimer fiddled with a tiny radio until he located "Baghdad Bob." In good-English, Bob, whose female counterpart is known to Americans as "Baghdad Betty," belittled Operation Desert Shield before signing off as "The Voice of Peace in Baghdad."

"They play some good music," Bentheimer said, giving the station its due. The station spins many records from the '50s and '60s.

"1 like those songs," Ridgely said after it played an Everly Brothers tune. He and Gomez got up to shine flashlights inside the observation post and around the campsite, looking for snakes and other creatures of the night. It was almost time for sleep. The desert that is often almost suffocating was suddenly chilly.

"It's 55 or 60 degrees, and we think it's cold," Gomez said. "If we were in Germany, we'd be wearing shorts right now."

In the far distance, white dots could be seen moving through the blackness. Auto traffic where there are no roads. Rough teeth-rattling terrain. In the desert, people make their own roads.

"I wish a UFO would come down," someone said just before climbing into a sleeping bag.

It would have been the perfect time, the perfect place.

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