No fun in the sun for troops at Camp Virginia
May 3, 2003
CAMP VIRGINIA, Kuwait — Spc. Daniel Merchain still isn’t used to the heat.
Merchain, with the 94th Engineers from Hohenfels, Germany, thought that after two months in the desert, he would be.
He sweats constantly.
He is sunburned.
He can’t sleep in his tent, which heats up like an oven under the desert sun.
He doesn’t like the stupid flies.
“You just try to cope. That’s about all you can do,” said the 23-year-old, who grew up in Washington state and is more comfortable with rain and clouds than searing sun and blowing sand.
On this sunny day — virtually every day at Camp Virginia is scorching — the engineer was sitting on a makeshift bench shaded by a canopy crafted from a poncho, smoking and sweating.
Merchain, like most of the roughly 12,000 troops at Camp Virginia, is waiting to go elsewhere.
Most of his unit has moved to Iraq and his job is to remain behind and maintain the trucks, graders and bulldozers.
The camp, roughly midway between Kuwait City and the Iraq border, is the way station for military policemen, infantry fighters, tankers, Bradley drivers, civil affairs troops, signalmen and just about anyone else awaiting orders to move into Iraq.
They battle the heat, the sand and the boredom.
“It’s not too bad,” said Sgt. Timothy Haskell, 27, of the 54th Engineers from Bamberg, Germany. “It’s just survival, really.”
Camp Virginia is not a bad place to wait, said some soldiers, especially those who deployed to Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Storm in 1991.
“Some young soldiers don’t know how good they got it here,” said Maj. Bill Boucher, of the 18th Military Police Brigade from Mannheim, Germany.
Boucher, 44, said troops in Desert Storm were constantly on the move and had to fit four people into one small tent continually in need of re-staking.
One recent day, Boucher sat in the shade of a concrete divider. On his left, next to his handgun, was an old harmonica his wife recently sent him. He plays it and writes in his journal to pass the time.
The journal, he explained, is something he hopes his kids and grandkids will some day read to understand his experience.
As an inspiration, Boucher has an eight-page diary entry his grandfather wrote while fighting in France during World War II.
Being apart from the family is difficult, but Boucher, who has six kids, said soldiers should take time to appreciate where they are. At Christmas, Boucher looked at the night sky of Kuwait and saw the stars.
“And I realized, that’s just the way it was 2,000 years ago,” he said. “It was historical.”
Camp Virginia’s location near Ali Al Salem Air Base, a major base for the Kuwaiti air force and allied planes, ensures the frequent roar of aircraft coming and going.
The twin blades of Chinook helicopters also at Camp Virginia constantly churn sand into blinding clouds.
Although austere, this is not some bare-bones outpost.
There are three dining facility tents where air-conditioning was recently installed.
On a recent Sunday, a special dinner featured lobster and shrimp; the week before, steak was served.
There is a Morale, Welfare and Recreation tent with a wide-screen TV, which is usually turned to the Fox News Channel.
Last week, however, one of the generators malfunctioned, and the man-sized air-conditioning units stopped working.
Still, troops continued to filter in to socialize and plug in their laptops to watch movies and compose e-mails while bathed in sweat.
The wait to buy items from the Army and Air Force Exchange Service trailer is never less than two hours.
Soldiers and Marines, clearly the majority of troops at the camp, don’t complain about the wait, but griped that items, such as baby wipes, were priced higher than in the States or Europe.
“I’d call it the desert tax,” said Staff Sgt. Daron Martin, of the 130th Engineers out of Hanau, Germany.
Martin said the price spike isn’t much of a pain, however.
“I don’t have anything else to spend my money on,” he said.
The wait to use the pay phones is about an hour. A 20-minute call to the U.S. costs about $10, although some have complained that certain brands of 60-minute calling cards they receive in care packages last just 15 minutes.
One tent has been converted into the Dusty Room Club, where several soldiers have hooked up audio systems and speakers to play music. They take requests. Non-alcoholic beer is sold at the club for $1 a bottle.
Spc. Juan Ozuna has not had time to check out the club. All he has had time to do is help his unit, the 439th Engineer Battalion from Bismarck, N.D., prepare for its mission.
“I’m not sure what I’m going to do or where we are going, but we’re spending the time getting our equipment ready,” Ozuna said as he hung his laundry to dry outside the large tent where his unit sleeps.
Ozuna, a reservist who worked at a Costco store in North Dakota before being activated, said he could take his clothes to a laundry point at Camp Virginia, but he suspects his unit will be moving north soon.
“I can’t take the chance I won’t have it back,” said the 20-year-old, who has been in Kuwait for three weeks.
Not everyone turns up their nose at Camp Virginia.
The conditions are surprisingly luxurious, according to Capt. Michael Stribrny, of the 130th Engineer Battalion from Hanau. “I was prepared for much worse,” he said.
The camp offers daily showers, hard-floored tents, a post exchange and three hot meals every day, he pointed out. Some units brought fans, TVs and electronic game systems.
“We got it good,” said Stribrny, who also expected to move soon into Iraq. “I can only imagine the guys who went in first. That had to be tough.”