After arriving in Kuwait we lived in an area named Camp New Jersey, out in the desert, miles from Kuwait City and anything else that resembled an advanced civilization. The desert was so hot and arid that our mission most of the time was just day to day survival. My Colin Powell autobiography fell apart on an extremely hot day when the glue in the spine disintegrated and the pages fluttered across the sand. There was an argument about the actual temperature; some said that 135+ degrees registered on their temperature gauges and others said it was impossible. All I knew was that I needed a new book. The Kuwaitis were known to be more active in the nighttime and morning because temperatures were favorable during these hours. We soldiers adopted this practice upon finding we also were more alert in temperatures such as 85 degrees at 2:00 a.m. rather than 115 degrees at high noon. The rising sun also tended to bring a nasty wind that blew sand into our tents no matter how hard we tried to seal them. It was quite common to find tiny sand dunes piled on our gear after sand storms had roared through the camp.
We were warned upon arrival that we would be sharing our space with some very inhospitable critters such as desert vipers, rats, camel spiders, lizards, and scorpions. I only saw one large lizard and some terrifying thing that was accused of being a camel spider. Whatever it was, it fearlessly chased a soldier screaming for his mother several yards before scuttling into a hole, apparently satisfied that it has established its territory. To keep critters off my cot when I decided to sleep under the stars one night, I stacked three pallets outside my tent Princess and the Pea style. I watched the stars all night while listening to The Band on my CD player. For some reason, the constellations seemed closer and brighter in the Middle East. Maybe it was just the time of year and the fact that we had no excessive street lamps or city lights to distract from the view. Another night several of us scrambled onto the top of an abandoned tent like monkeys and had an outdoor slumber party. We didn’t get much sleep but lying on top of the tent was remarkably more comfortable than trying to sleep on our foldout cots.
Our biggest worry wasn’t getting enough sleep or getting into scraps with local vermin, but rather the treks across the camp for daily luxuries like food, water, showers, phones, and anything else that couldn’t be easily found inside the sleeping tents. There was an AT&T center located a short quarter mile jaunt through the searing sand, and if we could get calling cards that hadn’t expired the second we paid for them, we would try to make long, long, long distance calls home, at a “low!” rate of about 99 cents per minute. We dreaded the phone center. Here’s why. There were some twenty tiny semi private plywood phone cubicles set up, and 85% of the time, in the middle of everyone’s personal, special conversations, the phones would all just go dead because of ‘commo blackouts’. Commo or communications blackouts occurred for a variety of reasons, but in Kuwait, at the little AT&T center, it was almost always because we had too many people making calls and the system couldn’t handle the overload. It was immensely frustrating to be in the middles of a conversation with a loved one and then hear a morose click, then the hum of dead space. The worst insult was probably the phone cards though. The scam AT&T was running was so unethical, and we couldn’t do anything about it except scream. We would spend God only knows on prepaid phone cards and after activating them, AT&T would immediately bill down half the minutes as activation fees or some other bullshit. Worse yet, the cards might already be “expired” upon purchase. This problem may have been fixed over the years, but I dealt with this for my entire deployment. So when commo blackouts occurred, very frequently, at Camp New Jersey, the sound of soldiers banging their receivers against the plywood walls and yelling obscenities, usually directed at AT&T, resounded through the air.
When we needed nourishment we had to hike 3/4 of a mile one way to three huge circus-y looking tents set up as our dining facilities. They offered a slight revival from the march through the hellish heat: low light, huge fans blowing icy air, and freezers full of popsicles for dessert. The food was nothing special, and one day there was something called (I shit you not) Sloppy Elroy on the menu. I don’t think anyone was brave enough to try it. One day I ate what I still believe was camel steak. It wasn’t half bad, with a texture and flavor not unlike a nice elk steak. The food was clean, decent, and it got us through. I loved to grab a rose flavored popsicle on my way out the tent flap door. I know, it sounds weird, but I liked them and they made me feel a little better about the fact that I had obvious armpit stains and sweat running into my eyes while I was walking back to my tent. Since the mini PX was on the way back (that would be another 3/4 mile) to our home base, many of us would stop to do some shopping for things like postcards, magazines, snacks, or CDs and lots of extra batteries. In the heat, battery life was shortened considerably. Because walking a mile and a half through blowing sand and blistering heat three times a day to eat quickly lost its appeal, many of us cut our meals down to two a day. Usually this was the midday meal since it was so hot and many of us were passed out in our tents sleeping off the worst part of the day.
There were good highlights I remember from Kuwait. On a trip to Camp Doha for a free day, I witnessed a troupe of British soldiers strip naked on the street and then proceed to put on their civilian clothes without any modesty whatsoever. God save the Queen, it was glorious! That same day I saw Gary Sinise perform with Kid Rock and Brittany Murphy at a USO tour at Doha. When Gary Sinise walked onstage, there was a split second of confused silence, and then someone yelled “Hey, it’s Lieutenant Dan!” Then the entire crowd, thousands of soldiers, screamed our lungs out for him. On another free day to a leisure park called the Marble Palace, I played on a large fancy children’s playground much like an overgrown child, and had my first frozen Starbucks drink. Yes, I had to be deployed in order to experience Starbucks! I found an old letter that I sent to my parents from Kuwait before we departed on our convoy to Iraq. We stayed in Kuwait for about one month, just long enough to try to become acclimated to the harsh conditions and prepare our equipment for the two day journey into Baghdad.
Howdy from Camp New Jersey! Well, it’s hot here. I’ve been trying to stay busy. So far I’ve learned how to play Rummy and I’m in the process of learning how to play Spades. I bought a Saddam Dollar the other day for the scrapbook…they’re kind of expensive but I’m going to try to buy more. We are all pretty bored here. I will attempt to describe this place. It is flat as a pancake, nothing but sand for miles! Clouds are rare, but I guess since it doesn’t rain there is no need for them. The sky is always washed out with a blazing hot sun scorching anything it can reach. Camp is really spread out. The chow tents are about 3/4 of a mile away, so it’s a long walk back and forth three times a day! It’s not so bad in the morning and night, but the mid-day walk to lunch is brutal! Each soldier is allowed six 1.5 Liter bottles of water each day…I think that comes to about 2 gallons a day. We sure sweat it out fast in the heat!
I haven’t seen any camels yet, but a few days ago a soldier caught a big lizard and showed it to everyone, then let it go. The last couple of days I have felt really homesick. This is definitely the most difficult thing I have had to do. I sure won’t take anything for granted when I get home! We are all nervous about the convoy north to Baghdad. As long as we do it right, we should be okay. Hundreds of soldiers from the Third Infantry Division have moved into camp. They were at the spearhead of the war and have seen a lot of combat. The stories they have told us are amazing! I know that this letter is short and I am sorry, but there isn’t much to tell…
The soldiers from the Third Infantry Division who spent time in our camp on their way home had been involved in heavy combat in Baghdad and the overthrow of the old regime. They looked faded, worn out and old even though many were younger than me (and I was young!) and they often gazed out into the desert with the trademark thousand yard stare of PTSD sufferers. I lost count of how many times I saw a 3ID soldier break down in the chow hall after looking down at his meal and seeing something other than Salisbury Steak. They were haggard, like they had exhaled much of their souls into the desert, and we National Guard soldiers were still so new, bright, shiny, a little bit fat, and very naïve. A First Sergeant from a tank company attached to the Division spoke to me very candidly about a connection he noticed between our two very different units.
“Please don’t take this the wrong way, but seeing so many smiling, happy, gorgeous female soldiers who are clean and well kept and friendly is the best possible thing to happen to these boys in months!” he suavely purred through a mustachioed Latino smile. He went on to explain that his boys had been in such disturbing forms of combat and many had taken enemy lives; they were still reeling from the natural ethical consequences of these experiences. He told me that they felt no better than a pack of wild dogs and that they still had bad days when they acted no better.
“But when we got here and saw this company full of angels from…where did you say you are from again? South Dakota! I have never seen so many beautiful women in one company before, and again please do not take this in a harassing manner, Sergeant. My boys’ morale skyrocketed when they saw female soldiers. So I told them to try and talk to you all, to practice making conversation, because for the last several months they have only spoken and acted like war hardened soldiers. They have not seen women in such a long time, they have forgotten how to act around women! Now it is time to become softer and kinder, to stop acting like a pack of wild dogs. They are good boys and they all served so courageously. So I hope you and your friends do not mind if my boys try to make conversation, however awkward it may be. But you ladies just might be our saviors before we go home and face our families.”
It was a strange favor to ask; maybe not everyone in the Army would consider it professional or even appropriate. But war is a strange place and stranger still is the ongoing struggle between the sexes. I think the First Sergeant was onto something, and there was nothing perverse in his intentions. Having compassionate females to talk to proved to be helpful to those still coping with demons. In some ways, the females in my company who did talk to the soldiers going home acted as freelance counselors without even knowing it. By the time we left Kuwait we were anxious to get out of the repugnant sand pit, or the world’s largest litter box, as many called it, and move on to something new. We all survived Kuwait, but we had experienced a major eye opener thus far in our new world. We had seen that life in Iraq was going to have an effect on us.