WITH THE U.S. FORCES, Saudi Arabia — Based on more than two months of interviews and occasional desert nights with GIs in Operation Desert Shield, here's a quick guide on what European ground troops can expect when they arrive in Saudi Arabia.


If Europe-based troops follow the pattern of earlier deployments, they'll arrive by air, wait for their equipment to get here by ship, then move out to the desert.

Nearly all GIs fly into a busy military air base in eastern Saudi Arabia. They form beside the plane and then march off to a holding area, where they are met, more often than not, by confusion.

Most people say it's a letdown. They just spent weeks psyching themselves up for possible combat only to be told to hurry up and wait.

"You've been running 240 miles per hour to get yourselves here," one logistics officer told a commander looking for housing for this troops. "Welcome to the 5-mile-an-hour zone."

If their advance party had its act together, the troops are whisked by bus to a nearby tent city or a warehouse converted-to makeshift barracks. Some units, especially those without advance parties, wait.

The country's main post exchange is at the air base. It's not big by European standards — about the size of a shoppette or convenience store in the States. It carries junk food, health and comfort items such as toothpaste, tobacco that's sometimes rationed, and an assortment of souvenir Desert Shield T-shirts. Troops get bused here from all over, and it's not uncommon to wait in line a half-hour to get inside.

The ports

GIs don't like port duty. They're packed into tent cities and warehouses, waiting for their ships to come in. This is when they start desert training and hear rumors about who's coming, who's leaving and when war is likely to start.

The waiting can last up to a month. By the time the ships arrive, most commanders are so tired of it that they drive their vehicles off, form them up and head straight out into the desert without looking back.

The desert

This, soldiers say, is where they earn their paychecks. Some live in base camps or tent cities and go out on missions from there. But many, especially the mechanized combat troops live in their tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles for weeks and months, training and waiting.

The sand has been compared to talcum powder, and GIs spend much of their time cleaning it out of their weapons. Some people are issued a desert-camouflaged cover designed to fit over their darker green rucksacks, and many of them wrap their weapons in this to keep out the sand. Most units concentrate on night fighting and finding their way around in the dark.

The biggest peacetime desert dangers, according to accident reports, are night helicopter flights and driving Humvees off cliffs of sand.

The wind blows monotonously from the north and in places creates towering crescent-shaped dunes. The north, east and west sides of the dunes slope gently up to a ridge, but the dune suddenly drops off on the leeward side — the southern edge of the crescent. At least one Humvee driver has died when he drove headfirst over one of these edges in the dark.

When in doubt, drivers warn, don't drive due south.

However, much of the terrain in American locations is made up of bleak, flat plains of gravel and sand. In some places, the flatness is broken by 100-foot mesas that remind people of western Texas.

To the far north, particularly along the approaches to Iraq, the desert unfolds into a completely flat plane broken by rivers that flow only a few days out of the year.

Weather and water

Daytime temperatures in mid-November are in the high 80s and low 90s. At night it drops to the low 60s along the coast and the 50s further inland.

By January, expect highs in the 70s, lows in the 30s and 40s. If they end up staying until next summer, troops can look. forward to August highs above 120 and lows in the 80s and 90s.

The big temperature drop at night makes it seem colder than it really is. Before sunrise in September, GIs were shivering while the thermometer read 90.

Dew and patches of dense fog are formed when occasional winds blow inland from the gulf.

December is the middle of the rain and sandstorm season. It might rain only once or twice, but it does so with a vengeance. One American major who spent time in Lebanon a few years ago said he once saw 4½ inches fall in two hours. Saudis say to expect the some here.

Sandstorms can blow with equal intensity, without the rain.

Few soldiers ever drank the claimed 6 to 7 gallons of water back in August. More often it was 6 to 7 quarts. Now, in the fall months, they drink the same amounts they would during a summer in the States. Not all the water tastes good, though, and Kool-Aid packages help.


It takes a few weeks for mail and newspapers to "find" a newly arrived unit. Afterward, it flows regularly — more or less. Delivery times vary, but it takes roughly two weeks for letters to get here from the States and about half that long from Europe. Many people seal their mail in plastic bags.

The Stars and Stripes is delivered daily except to many ships. The papers are printed in Germany and flown out each morning. Papers are distributed through the postal system, and it can take three or four days, sometimes a week, before troops in the farthest outposts see a copy,

The Arab News is a popular English-language daily. It carries the bigger stories from the States, plus a lot of up-to-date news on the gulf crisis.

Armed Forces radio stations broadcast on FM to most troop sites. GIs up north can also tune into Radio Baghdad, which has good music and bad propaganda.

Desert creatures great and small

Camels are cute but mean. Some Marines got bit when they tried taking pictures of themselves kissing the beasts. They can also kick you from any direction, they smell bad and they make an unhappy vomiting sound when upset.

Camel spiders look like anorexic tarantulas. They're supposedly harmless, and many are kept as pets.

Scorpions ore kept as pets, too. Their bites are seldom fatal but they are painful and can require quick medical attention.

Sand vipers are sidewinders that come out at night. Their bites are poisonous and can be fatal. GIs kill them whenever they see them, sometimes at the rate of three or four a night in a company-sized area. At least one soldier was evacuated to Germany for a viper bite. The best weapon against them is to never walk around with your boots off or your pant legs untucked.

GIs hate dung beetles and often kill them on sight. Flies can't be gotten rid of, and mosquitoes are said to come out after a rainstorm.

Lizards roam about. They range from the size of your thumb to as big as your forearm. Most are harmless and make popular pets.

Civvies and R&R

Civilian clothes are up to the unit commander. Most combat troops don't have them; a lot of rear area support people do.

Claiming security reasons, Desert Shield officials frown on people wearing uniforms into town. There are malls, fast-food restaurants and other places where GIs like to hang out. Gold, watches and Arabian handicrafts are popular souvenirs.

Some units organize bus and shopping trips, but the front-line troops usually have to settle for a. shower, a warm field ration and maybe a VCR movie inside a dusty tent somewhere in Saudi Arabia.

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