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On the war front with tanks that are 'broken already'

THE BALTIMORE EVENING SUN

WE MET in Baltimore in the summer of 1982. We were juniors in college. He was an out-of-town student intern. Our romance lasted for less than a year, but we remained friends and have kept in touch since.

Now he's in the desert of Saudi Arabia. In charge of a tank company, he will be one of the first to engage in land battle if the war comes to that.

I'm frightened for him. He called me just before he was to be shipped out in October. We talked for nearly two hours, and although he defended the decision to send troops to the Middle East to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, I thought he sounded scared, too.

He says he doesn't want to kill anyone but believes he's rightfully serving his country.

But his letters are sad, and he writes about the hard conditions the troops must endure and the poor condition of some of his equipment. We've decided to share excerpts from his letters because not much candid news about the men and women fighting in this war is getting out. We've decided not to reveal his name for fear he may be reprimanded by the military for his remarks. His letters, all dated before the U.S. attacked Iraq, keep reminding me that we are no longer engaged in war games.

Oct. 13, 1990

The first area we stayed at had very poor sanitary conditions. As we got closer to the desert, sand vipers (snakes), scorpions and sand flies increased as problems . . . Morale is low, and we are hoping to attack soon just to escape the conditions in our assembly area. Men are frightened, but they try not to show it. One got into a fight with a Saudi soldier, who tried to kill him . . .

Oct. 26, 1990:

I was ill-prepared for the desert of Saudi Arabia. Our position . . . is classified, but I will say it is dangerously close [to the front].

Our problems remain hidden. There is no press this far out, only Baghdad Betty on the radio reminding us that we are going to die. Pre-combat stress is high, and I feel unable to relieve most of the worries of my soldiers. The Army has done little to make our stay any easier. We don't even have maps to carry out any counterattacks.

Snakes, scorpions and spiders remain a problem and have bitten many soldiers. I've seen many scorpions in Texas and California but nothing as big and nasty as these Middle East bastards. Everything is aggressive, even the flies that seem to cling to any open wound, your mouth . . .

I am here waiting to respond to any order, although I hope there is a quick solution. The American soldier will never fully be appreciated for what he endures.

I must get some sleep. Hope to be back in six months.

Nov. 4, 1990

"The secretary of state, James Baker, was here, and I had to

travel three hours across desert wasteland (no roads) to attend a military reception . . . This dog and pony show lasted far too long for the desert midday. Physical discomfort did not permit any of us to listen to the content of his speech very carefully, but I believe he told us he was grateful for the sacrifice.

The secretary's visit did little to boost morale. In fact, the manner in which it was handled hurt the trust our men have in [his] leadership . . ."

Dec. 3, 1990

News of not receiving your first letter left me somewhat upset at our system, but it is slowly improving . . . All correspondence is welcomed and needed by myself and my soldiers. Mail is so important; really, any contact with home is.

Although a peaceful resolution would be welcomed by all, I don't believe it will happen. In an all-out movement . . . most likely 32 of the 57 men in my company will die. That is about 56 percent of us!

No matter how stressful the environment, we manage to enjoy life. We have even made the desert livable.

We have a pet scorpion . . . to help us get "in tune" with our surroundings. Both of us are caged in a sense and both of us are deadly.

Dec. 5, 1990

. . . Our chaplains have no official religious role while in this country, so as not to offend our host nation.

The cost of my personal equipment needed for a field environment could easily run into the thousands of dollars.

Could this money be better spent? Yes, if man didn't fight. No, if you believe the men and women who do protect this country deserve the best protection and equipment possible.

The only problem with the latter answer is -- the stuff just does not work as well as it should, and the soldiers know it.

But morale is still fairly high because of the recent telephone system established in the desert. For 15 minutes, guys can call home . . .

Although things have improved, the support units still retain the real goodies such as generators, sodas, TVs, VCRs and athletic equipment for themselves. The Saudis have almost stopped looking through our mail. Guys get Playboy and everything else. However, Americans smash our packages and steal many of the high-dollar items.

Most of the men would favor a draft if it would replace soldiers due to combat losses. They still do not want women drafted into combat roles. My men represent a disproportionate amount of our nation's poor. And Hispanics and blacks occupy a much larger portion of the military population than in the civilian [population].

At the beginning most agreed we should be here, but now there are doubts about our role. Their long stay away from family is also a pressure for soldiers.

Jan. 8, 1991

Uncle Sam fed us a fairly decent Christmas dinner, and then we had a feast from packages sent by loved ones and family. Despite being away from our families, we tried to enjoy ourselves.

Remember, the Saudi government forbids the U.S. military from officially recognizing any Christian holiday. Our chaplains are no longer religious officers, but rather "morale support officers." Some Jewish chaplains have changed their name tags so not to appear in public with names that sound Jewish.

On Christmas night all hell broke loose. Recently, the Army had finally supplied us with lanterns. Actually, we recently have gotten a host of other things like a generator, a Japanese-donated TV and VCR combination and wood floors.

Anyway, the lanterns run off of MOGAS, which is very dangerous. So Sgt. ------ attempted to fix a defective one, and it blew up. The man received burns on 42 percent of his body. We had to roll him in the sand to put out the flames on his body. Never do I want to see or hear burning human flesh again.

Our battalion had one death the month before, another in a long list of accidents. Another accident in the division killed eight guys. They all drank methanol mixed with orange juice to celebrate the holidays. Anyway, the killer is a lack of safety precautions.

Iraqi soldiers defect daily. They cross the border by walking.

The desert becomes very cold at night, close to freezing, yet still warms up at noon. Very weird weather.

I will state one fact: The Army is not logistically prepared to fight a war (from the ground).

Beans and bullets would not get to us fast enough. Also, we can't fix what we have on hand. My new tanks are broken already. Technological wonders that just make mechanics wonder. Also the Apache helicopter can't stay in the air long enough to keep it fighting.

There are real problems with some of the trash defense contractors have built.

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