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Death may be a soldier’s wartime companion, but some of these fresh-faced young troops are meeting it face to face for the first time in Kuwait.

In the first few weeks of this desert showdown, camp life settled into a routine of daytime work and training followed by evenings of cards, video games and DVD movies.

The conditions were crude, but the routine vaguely resembled life back home. Certainly there was little talk of fighting and death.

Many of the soldiers in Kuwait joined the service as an inviting career option. In the prosperous ’90s, with the Cold War in America’s rear view mirror, the idea of dying in combat seemed distant and quaint.

Now, with troops packing up their Humvees and trucks and heading north to war, suddenly death doesn’t seem quite so far away.

Chaplains report a sharp upturn in church attendance. Many soldiers are taking them aside to ask about death and heaven and God.

“In troubled times, we yearn for salvation,” said Capt. Martin Kendrick, chaplain for the 5th Battalion, 158th Aviation Regiment. “Suddenly, Bibles and rosary beads are hot commodities.”

Kendrick’s unit, a UH-60 Black Hawk airlift battalion, was bloodied before anyone else in Kuwait. Last month, only two weeks after arriving at Camp Udairi, two pilots and two crew chiefs died in a crash after a sudden sandstorm engulfed their aircraft. A day later, a sad unit held a memorial service for the four men.

That evening I learned firsthand how much death stings, even in the Army.

A young Puerto Rican soldier from a Germany-based aviation unit asked me as we sat on our cots if I knew the names of the victims, whether any were Puerto Rican.

I told him none came from the island, although one crew chief, Spc. Rodrigo Gonzalez, had a Spanish surname. I showed him a photograph.

A stunned look crossed the soldier’s face. Then his eyes filled with tears.

“That guy, he was my friend,” he said, his voice full of misery.

I wanted to comfort him. I didn’t know how.

“Your buddy, he was a good guy,” was all I could think to say.

The soldier lay down and wept silently into the pile of clothes he used as a pillow, his M-16 underneath the cot. From time to time he would look up with red-rimmed eyes, talking quietly in Spanish to a sergeant lying nearby.

After awhile, his friend handed him a pocket Bible. Then the soldier wept some more.

The Army now makes allowances for mourning. But during the run-up to this war, there has been little time to spare. The units that arrived in Kuwait in the last two months especially have worked at a feverish pace.

Commanders like to train their soldiers hard so they have less time to think about combat and gain more confidence in their own skills.

Most soldiers here think this war will be a walkover, with more Iraqis raising their arms in surrender than firing arms in anger. But a little fear is always there, and commanders agree it’s a healthy thing.

They worry more about the gung-ho youngster who looks forward to battle than the one with a prudent fear.

In Kuwait, there are plenty of young men and women who are eager to give the Iraqis the butt-kicking they deserve.

And there is a young soldier, crying quietly on his cot for the friend he will never see again.

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