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MARYLANDERS IN THE GULF... Christmas tree from Odenton stands watch in dunes


EASTERN SAUDI ARABIA -- Yes, soldier, that is a Christmas tree perched atop a barracks at Camp Sahik here -- a Scotch pine that was bought in Maryland, stashed in the back of a 2 1/2 -ton truck and smuggled into Saudi Arabia by Army reservists based at Fort Meade.

"A touch of home for the folks," said Sgt. Eric Marsh, the mastermind of Operation Yuletide, who donned a Santa suit yesterday and ho-ho-hoed through this desert camp where 200 Maryland National Guardsmen are spending Christmas.

"I want a plane ticket, one way, to Baltimore-Washington Airport," Spc. Kevin Wallace of Lochern called out, as Santa Marsh handed out packets of salted peanuts and KoolAid to the soldiers.

The good will, however needed and appreciated in this barren military post, was overshadowed at times yesterday by heightened fears that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein would use the holidays to test the U.S. military's state of readiness here in the desert kingdom.

"Anticipate a SCUD alert from that Ding Dong over there just to mess with our Christmas," Capt. Ronald G. Chew told the Guardsmanof the Salisbury-based 200th Military Police Company during an afternoon briefing.

Captain Chew, 26, a full-time Guardsman from Hebron, was talking about the possible firing by the Iraqis of a surface-to-surface missile, a weapon that could carry a chemical warhead. U.S. soldiers stationed in Saudi Arabia since Iraq's invasionof Kuwait have been required to carry their gas masks at all times -- including when they jog on base. And at Camp Sahik, the men and women at guard posts also must pack in their rucksacks the special suits designed to protect them during a chemical assault.

"There's a little uneasiness in the air," said Spc. Myrtle Porter, a Baltimore homemaker, after returning from her sentry duty. "Hassam knows we love Christmas. We're walking easy today, very light, very light."

In the hot Saudi sun, Specialist Porter said it was tough to remember that it was Christmas. But if she were home in Baltimore, she said, she knows right where she would be -- in her mother's kitchen, baking.

For Sgt. Donald Morton, Christmas Eve is normally the time he and his family decorate their tree.

"I hate putting lights on the Christmas tree," said Sergeant Morton, a Mass Transit Authority police officer who lives in Gardenville. "ButI'd give anything to be there doing it. I'd decorate the whole neighborhood if I could."

Sergeant Morton is a member of the Towson-based 290th Military Police Company, sent Dec. 7 to join Operation Desert Shield.

Throughout the military compound that houses the two Maryland Guard units and three other military police companies under the flag of the 400th Military Police Battalion out of Fort Meade, groups of soldiers prepared for war.

Some drilled in the sand for hand-to-hand combat. Others attended a briefing explaining the alarm system established to warn the battalion of chemical attack. Members of the Salisbury 200th Military Police Company hauled abandoned tractor-trailer tires to the campsite, which some Marylanders have nicknamed "Oceanless City."

The barracks housing the 200th is precariously close to a roadway, only 15 feet from the blacktop. Company members shoveled sand into the old tires and used them as a base for a fortified perimeter that they hoped would shield them in a terrorist attack.

"Today's Christmas Eve," Sgt. James Johnston said quizzically as he paused from his work. "I've been losing track of time."

Sergeant Johnston, a truck driver for the Perdue company, said Christmas is a time for children. "You know how you love to see your kids wake up on Christmas morning and open their gifts? As long as they're taken care of, that's all that counts."

Pvt. William McIntyre of Parsonsburg, on the Eastern Shore, learned yesterday that his employer of only a year, Freestate Industries of Baltimore, had sent his wife, Linda, a $400 check to buy his three children Christmas presents.

He got the news in a telephone conversation and promptly broke down crying.

"I just lost it," the 28-year-old truck driver said.

Chaplain Edward James, a Presbyterian minister, made the rounds to notify soldiers of Christmas Eve caroling and religious services.

At other military bases in Saudi Arabia, U.S. soldiers have been prevented from publicly displaying any religious symbols, in deference to their Moslem hosts. But when Sergeant Marsh and his engineers put up the Christmas tree for all to see, no one seemed to mind.

Sergeant Marsh, a robust New Hampshire builder who is assigned to the engineer unit of the 400th Battalion, hatched the Christmas tree plan while the battalion trained at Fort Meade in November.

Two weeks before the group was sent to Saudi Arabia, he sent out two engineers with these orders: "Buy a tree." The tree was bought at the Odenton Volunteer Fire Company, then wrapped in wet paper towels, stuffed in a plastic bag and hidden along with ornaments, garland and lights -- among the battalion vehicles that were being shipped to Saudi Arabia.

"I've been playing this game since 1958 and I know what the troops like," he said.

His commander originally told him to keep the evergreen inside, but it found its way outside the engineer's office and then Sunday night to the top the group's barracks, aglow with white lights.

"If I thought I could get it up on that tower," Sergeant Marsh said, referring to a 700-foot transmission tower on the edge of the base, "that's where it would be."

The tree was the most visible sign of Christmas on base. But occasionally yesterday, one could overhear a soldier humming his favorite holiday tune.

The camp movie tent featured a long list of holiday favorites that would be shown yesterday and today -- "March of the Wooden Soldiers," "One Magic Christmas," "Holiday Inn," "A Christmas in Connecticut," "Scrooge," "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Die Hard."

Today, the soldiers will eat a special holiday meal: shrimp cocktail, roast turkey, baked ham and roast beef, vegetables, cranberry sauce and an assortment of pies. The troops also will have a day of field activities including volleyball matches, basketball games and Frisbee tournaments.

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