The desert sands that once belonged to oilmen and wandering Bedouins now bristle with missiles and antiaircraft guns, their firepower pointed north toward Kuwait.
The most potent of the missiles--the American-made Patriot--is the key to U.S. defense of the air bases and oil installations in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern province, which sits atop one-quarter of the world’s known oil reserves.
A small group of Americans responsible for one of the batteries exudes confidence that the Patriots will provide a final shield against massive destruction if Iraq targets the Eastern province with Soviet-made Scud missiles--weapons that Iraq used to rain terror on Iranian cities during the Iran-Iraq War.
“There’s absolutely nothing that can defend itself against the Patriot,” said Sgt. 1st Class Steve Gebert, 39, of Juneau, Alaska. Like his colleagues, Gebert believes that American planes will be able to cripple the Iraqi air threat if war comes, thus restricting the unit’s mission to defending against missiles.
The troops in his unit thought the war had begun last Sunday when Iraq test-fired three Scuds, each with a range of about 400 miles. Although the Scuds were aimed away from the Eastern province, the troops of the 2nd Patriot Battalion of the 7th Air Defense Artillery received intelligence reports almost instantaneously that missiles had been launched--and were coming at them.
“What we went through was the most realistic exercise we could have had short of hostilities,” said Lt. Brent Fraser, 24, of Swanzey, N.H., the fire-control platoon leader. “It showed us some things we could improve on, and we made some adjustments. We thank (Iraqi President) Saddam Hussein for that.”
The highly mobile Patriots, launched from the back of trailer trucks with dumpster-like hydraulic lifts, have been in place in Germany since the early 1980s, but they have never before been airlifted to a zone of imminent danger. Each truck-mounted launcher contains four missiles with computers and radar tracking that can zero in on aircraft and missiles at low or high altitudes.
This unit, originally based near El Paso, was one of the first to arrive after Iraq’s Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait. Each battery--which has six launchers--came with only enough missiles to fire once per canister barrel. Since then, supply lines have “matured,” and the unit is stocked for additional firings.
“We’re much better prepared than we were in August,” said Capt. Walt Herbert, 30, of Ft. Bliss, Tex. “Not only do we have plenty of missiles, we’ve had a chance to dig in and to get used to the environment. In many ways, it wasn’t tough to adapt. All we did really was transfer from one desert to another.”
Time does not hang heavy for the 2nd Patriot Battalion, commanded by Lt. Col. Lee Neel. The troops are endlessly filling sandbags, fortifying their positions, breaking down and cleaning the launchers every two days to prevent blowing sand from causing malfunctions and--to maintain morale--competing in events ranging from volleyball to apple-bobbing. There is mail call daily, along with two hot meals.
The unit has moved into an abandoned warehouse coated with ankle-deep sand. With scrounged plywood, the soldiers built partitioned rooms--four men to a cubicle--and a Christmas stocking already hangs in one. The unit’s first sergeant, Larry Brooks, has hidden away enough stockings for every soldier. They were gifts from a group of military wives.
There is also a day room with a bench press, a Ping-Pong table and a television set. Cable News Network can be tuned in when the atmospheric conditions are right.
“It’s amazing how adaptable American soldiers are,” said Brooks, a 17-year veteran. “I think that’s what always made our Army unique. I don’t care what you throw at them--continuous work or figuring out how to take showers in the desert--and they find a way to do it.
“Some of the younger ones are scared to death. When they got the word that Scuds had been launched the other day, they thought it was D-Day. But they performed really well. I don’t think there’s anyone here who won’t be able to handle whatever we’re called on to do.
“What I’m seeing here, every day, is my soldiers growing up. They’re getting older in their own minds. They’re learning there’s more to life than just drinking beer and hanging out with the guys back home.
“We’ve got a boy here named Atkins, and I bet he’s never said a cuss word. Well, the other day I heard him cussing, and I said to myself: ‘Hot damn. He’s fitting right in. That boy’s going to make it just fine.’ ”