Gear is a gift for some, burden to others

For nearly two decades, 1st Sgt. Cynthia Howard has been buying her own sports bras to wear under her Army uniform.

There's no way around it, Howard said. Female soldiers need them, especially when deployed to the desert, whether the Army buys them or not.

Before deploying to Kuwait on Sunday, things were no different. But as it turns out - this time around - Howard didn't need to buy any, after all.

As soon as Howard and more than 150 other Fort Eustis-based 7th Transportation Group soldiers arrived at Camp Doha late Monday afternoon, she was issued new gear that's rarely, if ever, been given out before - including four new sports bras.

Because of a new program that the Army refers to as "the rapid fielding initiative," every soldier's first order of business in the desert was to receive two new pairs of boots, work gloves, a water hydration system, goggles, socks, a lightweight Kevlar helmet, fleece and underclothes - bras included.

The soldiers checked in at Doha and later drove to Camp Arifjan, where they'll spend most of their yearlong deployment.

For some, the gear was a welcome gift. For others, it was just more to carry.

"For years, we have been taking care of our vehicles and our equipment," said Kirk Sledge, a retired Army sergeant major and manager of the issue facility at Doha. "Now we are taking better care of our soldiers. This is what I call 'creature-comfort gear.' "

Sledge - pointing to a line of boxes in a Doha warehouse and a few civilians helping hand out the goodies - said the equipment program started earlier this year.

It grew out of lessons learned early in the war, Sledge said.

For example, the underclothes are given out because the Army now understands what it's like to work in temperatures that often exceed 120 degrees.

The underclothes are made of a special material that helps pull sweat away from the body to keep soldiers more comfortable.

The new goggles look more like sunglasses than the pair the Army used to issue that covered nearly half your face.

And the hydration system - basically a backpack full of water with a straw that reaches to your mouth - is better than carrying a canteen around all the time.

Sledge said everything had been used or tested by the Army's Special Forces. That's fitting because even transportation units - which are typically seen as support groups - are holding down the front lines of the war in Iraq. The 7th Transportation Group unloads ships in Kuwaiti ports and trucks the supplies into Iraq. Roadside bombs and convoy ambushes have become one of biggest dangers in Iraq. The roads are where many of the group's soldiers spend their time.

In August, Spc. Raymond Faulstich Jr. became the group's first soldier to die in the war when his convoy was attacked in Najaf.

To date, Sledge said, the Army has issued more than $37 million worth of equipment to desert soldiers. "And there are four teams going around the U.S., giving out this stuff," he said. "But we can't get to everybody, which is why these guys are having to get this stuff on their first day in country."

Some soldiers weren't sure they needed - or wanted - the extra gear because it's an extra duffel bag full of things to keep track of and carry around.

"It's more stuff to haul," Sgt. 1st Class Jose Cruz said. "Although, I will admit, I am looking forward to getting the new Kevlar helmet.

"I heard that it almost feels like you have a baseball cap on, but it gives you the same protection as our other, heavier helmets."

Sgt. 1st Class Jer emy Gorelick didn't see the point of it all.

"The last time we were over here, the war was going on, and we didn't have any of this stuff," Gorelick said. "We did just fine then. Why not now?"