The sniper position sits atop a low ridge, offering a spectacular view of the long, flat desert that leads north to Kuwait.
A hundred yards back, the Marine riflemen of Bravo Company have dug trenches deep into the sand, and behind them sit the mortars, the anti-tank weapons, and the light armored vehicles.
For Lance Cpl. Jack Gootee, a Camp Pendleton Marine with a flair for the dramatic, there is no other place to be--even on the day after the failure of the Geneva talks, a day when war seemed more likely than ever.
A member of a sniper and surveillance team, Gootee sits at the outer perimeter of task force “Papa Bear,” a contingent of more than 2,500 Pendleton Marines who make up part of the vast network of allied forces massed south of the Kuwaiti border.
Composed of troops from the 1st Battalion of the 1st Marine Regiment and reinforced with armored assault vehicles and shoulder-launched Stinger anti-aircraft missiles from other units, the task force is highly mobile and capable of striking out quickly if an offensive is ordered to dislodge Iraq from Kuwait.
“There is a real degree of excitement among the troops,” said Col. Rich Hodory, task force commander and a veteran of two hitches in Vietnam. “We have a lot of equipment bought in the Reagan era. We have had time to train with it. We are prepared.”
Hodory said there was disappointment among his troops when word came that the talks between Secretary of State James A. Baker IIIand Iraqi Foreign Minister Tarik Aziz had failed to reach a solution to the crisis.
“But as the President says, that’s his call, not mine. And we are ready,” the colonel said Thursday.
The weaponry under Hodory’s command is scattered across the desert in a long, jagged line, hugging the high dunes, rock outcroppings and muddy depressions caused by the January rains.
Amphibious assault vehicles lumber across the sand, making their own roads with their heavy treads before stopping just long enough to disgorge two dozen Marines from the rear door.
Light trucks mounted with TOW antitank guns take up positions behind ridges, offering gunners a clear view of the field ahead. Mortar crews practice sighting up targets 3,000 meters downrange, while machine guns command an area now inhabited by nothing more threatening than a pack of camels.
Some units of the 1st Marine Regiment arrived in Saudi Arabia in mid-August, but others have been in the desert less than a month--just long enough to appreciate the conflicting emotions that a soldier endures on the edge of war.
For Lance Cpl. Agustin Collazo, the past two months have been spent alone in the darkness, a sentry who has made his home in the desert scrub.
It is here, behind a wall of sandbags that only partially shields him from the cold winds, that Collazo has had time to become a friend of the night.
“It took some time to get used to it,” said the 19-year-old native of Rochester, N.Y., who had never before been out of the United States. “At night, sometimes you begin to see things. You’re very alert. Sometimes you see a dark spot that supposedly moves, but it doesn’t. It’s just a bush.”
At the sniper team’s trench, the nights are a ritual of male-bonding borne of shared experiences. They delight in the uniqueness of their mission, and together they meticulously clean their scoped rifles that set them apart from other Marines.
Like others in this front-line force, Lance Cpl. Gootee exudes the stereotypical image of the grunt--gung-ho and fearless.
“This is a sniper and surveillance team,” Gootee said. “We move out in front of the battalion, just five of us, scoping things out, gathering intelligence, out there all alone. We’re the eyes, ears, and trigger-finger.”
But beyond the bravado, they talk longingly of home, and of those who await their return.
Gootee arrived in Saudi Arabia Dec. 23, missing his first wedding anniversary by three days and what would have been his first Christmas with his wife, Julie, in their San Clemente home.
For the duration of Operation Desert Shield, Gootee sent his wife back to their hometown of Jonesboro, La., to be with her parents. Every night, he forms a mental picture of where she is and what she is doing.
“I can pretty much guess her daily routine,” he said. “I know where she goes and what she does. I look at my watch, figure what time it is back there, and think about what she might be doing then. The hard thing is, she doesn’t know what I’m doing.”
Fellow sniper Cpl. Tony Latiolais, a Louisiana-born Cajun with a fondness for country music, talks about the wedding he is planning for March 7, 1992.
“It’s kind of far off, but my girlfriend’s two sisters just had a double wedding, and I didn’t want to give her old man a heart attack,” said Latiolais, who lives with his fiancee’s parents in Mission Viejo.
“Robin--that’s my girl--her parents threw me a big party before I left. It was something,” he said.
Other times, the young Marines consult their watches and try to remember the nightly network television schedules.
“ ‘The Simpsons'--I love that show--it’s on tonight at 8,” Latiolais said. “I remember most of the shows. No TV here, but sometimes I rig up my transistor radio and get country (music) on Voice of America.”
Latiolais is confident that he will return home, war or no, but he is worried about news reports of anti-war demonstrations. Older Marines have told him their stories of another war--Vietnam--when they returned home to something less than cheers and a parade.
“To be honest, we can’t get involved in the politics of this war,” he said. “We have to rely on our commanders to make the right decision. Nobody is mentally prepared for this war. But you can’t worry about it.
“Remember what the old soldier said: the anticipation of death is worse than death itself.”
At the battalion aid station, where Navy corpsmen are prepared to treat the wounded if war does come, the mood is significantly more somber.
“It’s scary right now,” said Hospitalman 3rd Class Edmund Lacdoo, who has been in Saudi Arabia since mid-August. “This is my first time in a situation like this. Everyone should be scared right now. You don’t know what is going to happen.
“We can treat the gunshot wounds, but if it’s a chemical or biological attack, it can cause a horrible death. It’s awful.
“The Marines have a different outlook. Like they’re out there to defend and take a bullet. But they don’t know how bad it can be.”
Richard Beene, a Times staff writer and assistant city editor in Orange County, is reporting from Saudi Arabia as part of the U.S. military’s Home Town Media Coverage program. He is visiting Marine units from El Toro, Tustin and Camp Pendleton. This is his third report.
Trenches: Mock battle shows U.S. could lose half its men in assault. A22
Prayers: Antiwar conclave will begin in O.C. and spread to 150 countries. A34