CHECKPOINT 3-C, SINAI DESERT — CHECKPOINT 3-C, Sinai Desert -- Spc. Alexander Epps is jealous. Just around the bend, Italian tourists sunbathe and snorkel at a Red Sea resort.
Specialist Epps, in jungle boots and green fatigues, must stare through binoculars at empty sand.
"To tell you the truth, I thought it would be more of a vacation," said Specialist Epps, 34.
He left his job at the Har Sinai synagogue in Baltimore to join a peacekeeping force in the Sinai desert two months ago.
He is among 96 Maryland National Guard members who volunteered to come to Egypt's Sinai Desert for six months to oversee the 16-year peace between Egypt and Israel.
Since they arrived in January, the Marylanders have seen nothing more hostile than hot sun, gritty sand and a few nasty camels.
Not that their duty is all onerous:
The soldiers have their own beach for off-duty hours.
There are no tents here; everyone lives in air-conditioned trailers.
The food is good and plentiful.
While off duty, everyone can tour Cairo or Jerusalem, work on college courses, learn to scuba dive or join the softball team.
Besides, said Specialist Epps, "I'm over here where history has been made.
"Not too many people can say that."
Their stint is with the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO), the 11-nation peacekeeping force created when Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty in 1979.
And their presence is an experiment to see if the military Reserves and National Guard can relieve the shrinking U.S. Army of some of its overseas duties.
So far, it has worked well, according to officers.
"I'm highly impressed," said Maj. Gen. David Ferguson, the Australian officer in charge of the entire 2,000-soldier MFO.
"This is a first-class outfit."
The MFO has already been under intense scrutiny.
Some are looking at it as a model for a possible peacekeeping force on the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria.
Others see the operation here as a waste of money.
Sen. Jesse Helms, the North Carolina Republican who is chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, recently wondered why it is necessary to pay to keep soldiers "just sitting in the sand."
The cost of the force -- about $51 million a year -- is split equally among Israel, Egypt and the United States.
The United States provides about half the soldiers; Colombia and Fiji each send about 350 soldiers; France sends pilots for the planes; Italy sends sailors for patrol boats; and six other nations send specialists.
Using the Reservists and National Guard overseas -- instead of paying them to train stateside -- can relieve pressure on active duty forces that are already caught between "downsizing" and heavier peacekeeping demands, according to Deborah R. Lee, assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs.
"I don't see why we can't do more of this in the future," said Ms. Lee on an inspection tour in the Sinai earlier this month.
She may, however, recommend shorter rotations to lower the costs closer to those for the 40 or so regular training days due each reservist.
Switching from civilian life to active duty was an adjustment for the guard and reserve volunteers.
"We had to get the civilian mind-set out," said Sgt. 1st Class Frank Sealover, 41, who worked for a safe company in Salisbury before volunteering.
"I was used to getting up at 8 and getting my coffee and thinking about going to work."
Here, the soldiers are up before 6 for an hour of running or other physical training.
Then they get in a chow line.
The assignment was opened first to volunteers from the 29th National Guard Infantry Division, based in Maryland and Virginia, then to other units.
There were 380 guardsmen from 22 states who volunteered; 42 more reservists were picked and mixed with 109 active duty soldiers for the posting.
They have guns but are not supposed to use them.
The treaty spells out allowable troop strengths for Israel and Egypt in four zones of the Sinai.
The MFO counts tanks, planes and troop carriers, to ensure that the limits in each zone are not exceeded and there is no buildup of forces.
Mostly, that means watching empty desert to make sure it stays empty.
"It's pretty boring trying to keep yourself occupied," said Spc. James Jordan Jr., from Alexandria, Va., as he eyed the motionless expanse from his observation tower.
"There's nothing you can do but sit here and watch."
Others' jobs offer more challenge.
Warrant Officer John Fetzer, 30, an active duty Army pilot from Mount Airy, finds the desert flying exciting.
"I just like to have a helicopter strapped to me. Just point me in a direction and I'll fly," he said.
"It can be boring here. A person has to be creative and a self-starter to make it enjoyable."
Variety of motives
Some guardsmen say they volunteered to see the Middle East; others wanted the service credits to boost their military retirements; some want the pay; others wanted a chance to be an active duty soldier for a while.
They acknowledge they did not know just what to expect.
Those who thought it would be fun in the sun find the routine deadly dull. Those who thought it would be desolate and rough are finding unexpected comforts.
"Believe it or not, I love it," said Sgt. Lloyd Roosa, 24, of Rising Sun.
JTC He left his job as a chef at Woody's, a restaurant in Cecil County, because he missed the military life.
"I like getting out in the field. To me, it's a sense of adventure."
The South Camp, base for most of the U.S. forces, is situated next to Sharm el-Sheikh, a premier scuba
diving spot on the Red Sea and a favorite resort of Europeans.
The soldiers can go there when off duty.
They live in roomy bunkhouses. Soldiers can take military courses by closed-circuit TV to Rome, rent books and videos from the camp library, or work out in the weight rooms.
Every evening there is basketball, volleyball and softball.
"It's not too bad. But I'm dying for a Big Mac," said Spc. Hans-Peter Eckert, 22, of Severna Park.
He volunteered to earn money for college and was assigned to be a lifeguard on the soldiers' beach.
The worst weather is yet to come. The noon sun now is sharp, but evenings still are comfortable and nights deliciously cool.
By the time the reservists leave in July, the temperature will soar each day above 100 degrees, and the motionless air will be a freeway for flies.
The infantrymen serve three-week shifts at one or another of the several "remote" posts, many of them on barren hillsides with stark desert all around.
But even here the soldiers live in air-conditioned trailers, with wall lockers and, in some, rugs on the floors. The kitchens include deep freezers, refrigerators and stoves.
"I expected total isolation," said Maj. Kim Packer, 31, the force dental surgeon, who arrived with the guardsmen but will serve a year here on active duty.
Like most of the 112 women in the MFO, she is at the northern support headquarters base of El Gorah, close to the Mediterranean Sea.
Expecting the worst
"I just prepared for the worst," said the major, from Kingsville in Baltimore County.
"Then I got here, and I found it's not as bad as I expected. We have plenty of amenities, and what we don't have is only a mail package away."
The mix of volunteers and guardsmen has made an unusual battalion. Almost two-thirds of the men are single, many of them students. But it also includes men in their 40s and 50s, older than most Army infantrymen.
There are 87 college graduates -- three with master's degrees and five with post-master's.
"You usually don't have people who are lawyers, or who own their own computer stores or catering stores, in an infantry division," said Maj. William Greenberg, who helped organize the battalion.
Since it began work in 1982, the MFO has witnessed no hostile action.
Almost all of the intrusions have been accidental ones: a tank making a wrong turn across an invisible sector line, a jet pilot turning a few seconds too late and crossing into the wrong
No MFO soldiers have been hurt in aggression.
Vehicle accidents and sports injuries give the camp doctors most of their patients.
MFO officials defend the usefulness of the force. They note the yearly U.S. cost of the peacekeeping is less than the price of, say, one F-16 fighter plane.
"Isn't it better to have a peacekeeping force sitting peacefully than in action?" asked Michael Sternberg, a civilian official of the MFO office in Tel Aviv.
Treaty established MFO
Unlike most peacekeeping forces that operate under the United Nations, the MFO is written into the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.
Unless the two countries agree to change the terms of their treaty, the MFO is obligated to stay.
Sergeant Sealover, who helped train the guardsmen, admits to some reservations about the necessity of the job.
"I thought it was a real important mission. But maybe [the MFO] has outlived its usefulness," he said.
"When they start building resort hotels on the beach, I think it's clear they want peace.
"We're sitting on prime real estate," he noted.
"Maybe in the future they won't want us around. And that's a good thing."