TOM ASHBROOK: The first correspondent we're going to hear from is Scott Calvert, a correspondent with The Baltimore Sun. He is embedded with the 101st Airborne Division and traveled with those troops from Fort Campbell, Ky., to Kuwait last week. He joins us from what is being called Camp Pennsylvania in the Kuwaiti desert. When I spoke with him he was in the midst of one of many sandstorms. I asked him to tell me where he was and why.
SCOTT CALVERT: I'm actually sitting inside a Scud bunker in Camp Pennsylvania because a sandstorm came out of nowhere and this was the only place I could get to, one of the only dry spots I could find to get out of the sand.
TA: Scott, what is a Scud bunker?
SC: It's a concrete structure that can hold approximately 40 guys if they are packing them in here pretty tightly. There are sandbags on the top and the sides. Basically if they got the alert that a Scud had been launched they would come out here and kind of cram inside and see where the thing landed.
TA: You're with the 101st. Can you tell us where you are or how long you've been with the troops there?
SC: I am about 30 miles from the Iraqi border. This is a one-mile square camp -- there are several of these in the Kuwaiti desert. As far as the eye can see there is sand, sand and more sand. The 3rd Infantry Division of the Army was here prior to our arrival, so it was a fairly well-established camp. It's not exactly luxury living, but we've got showers and there is hot food for breakfast and hot food for dinner. We sleep in tents, and I'm actually pretty lucky, I've got a cot to sleep on.
TA: What is the level, to your eye, of war readiness in the camp that you're sitting in at this moment?
SC: Well, I think they're getting pretty ready. During the day the guys are out training. They're working on urban-warfare drills, they're doing night-vision goggle drills in the evening. They're doing all sorts of physical training. At the same time, there is a lot of lying around and sort of kicking back and letting the soldiers chill out a bit. They don't want to work them so hard that by the time a war should start, they're just too tuckered out.
TA: You mentioned a sandstorm there before. You've written about sand as being the ever-present element in a soldier's life. How bothersome is it now, and how bothersome might it be in battle?
SC: You know, it's funny. We had a really bad sandstorm Thursday night, and most of Friday that made it really unpleasant to be outside of your tent for any length of time. At its worst, you can't see more than 50 feet, and it's like a blizzard, only you're being pelted with sand. It gets into everything. It gets into your tent, it gets into your mouth, food you're trying to eat. It's really a menace. The one upside for the Army here is that they say that it would affect the Iraqis just the same, and in fact it makes it much more difficult to launch any sort of chemical attack, because when the winds whip up like this it just disperses it and makes it hard to control. That is sort of the silver lining.
TA: Do the soldiers see that silver lining? How much on their minds is the possibility of chemical and biological attack?
SC: Not a whole lot. I mean, they don't talk about it, but you don't hear a lot of war talk. It is hard to know if they are trying to keep themselves distracted and not dwell on the possibility or just what. There is no question that this is a very stressful environment and people's nerves are getting frayed. They are living on top of each other 24/7, they are away from their families and friends, and they are in this unforgiving climate. Then add to that that they might be going to war soon.
TA: You describe a scene where a young private inadvertently took someone else's anthrax pills and it just about turned into a melee.
SC: It was a simple mistake, more or less. This private saw some anthrax pills on the floor and put them into his gas mask case. Then when they did what they call a "sensitive-items check," another private couldn't find his anthrax pills, and that is when it was discovered that this other private had taken the pills that weren't his. He and his sergeant really got into it, and it actually turned into a fight. A second sergeant who saw this just came sprinting down the tent and tackled the guys.
TA: Did you have a chance to talk with U.S. troops about -- or do they talk about -- the why of the war? Do they believe that they will soon be at war or do they think that it might still be averted?
SC: No, I think they think that they will indeed be at war pretty soon. If they are having doubts about the why, or the reason for doing this, they are not talking about that too openly. That's a pretty heavy thing, in effect, to contradict their commander-in-chief. It's pretty taboo, more taboo, I think, than having that illicit porn that they are not supposed to have, or trying to brew up some home-brew in their tents. You know, for most of these guys, this is the first time around. Some folks were here in the Gulf War in 1991, but you know, 12 years is a long time in the military and there are a lot of guys who are just out of basic training who are here. They look like young kids. They are 18 or 19. They just don't know, just what to expect. Even the veterans will admit to feeling a little bit queasy. After all, if there is a war, then who knows what will happen?
You know there is one thing that I want to add that is kind of interesting. If you do talk with soldiers, one of the things that you hear a lot is, 'Saddam Hussein, he was involved in bringing down the twin towers, and so therefore, this is payback.' I thought that was interesting to hear so many guys state as fact that Saddam Hussein was behind September 11th, when nobody has, really, documented that that link does exist. But the bottom line is these guys are ready to go. You know, there is some trepidation, some nervousness, but after living here for a couple of weeks and dealing with the sandstorms, such as the one that is blowing all around my head now, any place is better than this, almost.