An anxious quiet falls over U.S. troops at the front WAR IN THE GULF


DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia -- Some drew up wills. Others sought out the chaplain.

But a soldier who turned to poetry may have best summed up the feelings of front-line U.S. troops as the beginning of an allied ground attack approached:

"We pray and talk, all of us as one.

Believing that the end of this will come.

"Be brave, be strong" is all we hear.

When all we really feel is fear.

Those words, from Spec. Ginny D. Thomas, 29, of Albuquerque, N.M, typified the mood of anxious quiet that has taken hold of many units in the past few days.

For Kirk Alcorn, a 23-year-old armored-vehicle gunner from Green Cove Springs, Fla., the most haunting image is a big berm of sand and rock that stretches down the Iraqi and Kuwaiti borders.

Although armored units with mine-clearing plows and bulldozers have knocked passages through these barriers, the berm remains a psychological barrier for Mr. Alcorn.

"That will be the most tense part of moving forward for me," he said. "What's going to hit me at the berm? The image I had in my mind was the huge ominous mound of dirt that would cause us headaches."

For many others, it is the prospect of weathering a chemical attack that has kept them tossing in sleeping bags as the thud of bombs has echoed from a few miles to the north.

Master Sgt. Tommy Harris, 41, of Newnan, Ga., says the fear is greater than anything he felt while patrolling the jungles of Vietnam in 1968.

Sergeant Harris, a reserve soldier activated for duty in the gulf, said, "In Vietnam I knew my greatest danger was a person, face-to-face, who had a rifle. Here you have chemicals, artillery and possibly nuclear weapons."

With such thoughts on soldiers' minds, traffic in and out of chaplains' tents has picked up much as the traffic of supply transports now clogs the roads to the front.

In one Marine unit, a colonel in a front-line position described his mood by reciting the 23rd Psalm in its entirety.

This turn to religion hasn't been entirely a matter of self-preservation. As the weeks of allied air assaults have rolled by, infantry soldiers have become increasingly sympathetic toward the Iraqi soldiers enduring almost non-stop pounding.

Maj. Lawrence Krause, a Protestant chaplain from Elmira, N.Y., said soldiers have begun asking him to include those Iraqis in his prayers.

But the troops have little sympathy -- or patience -- for the world's would-be peacemakers.

"I can't take this emotional roller coaster," said one Marine sergeant. "It's peace in the morning and war at night."

"We should have started the ground war sooner," said 1st Lt. Charles Hoskinson, of Greenville, N.C. "It's inevitable. He's not going to withdraw. He will never withdraw. There is no other way."

But others aren't as eager for combat.

The Second Marine Division's Brig. Gen. Russ Sutton, who lost ** an eye fighting in Vietnam, said: "I don't think anyone who's experienced war is hoping for it. Of those who are, it's nothing more than bravado."

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