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‘Love Boat’ of the Gulf Offers Respite From War : Stress: The Cunard Princess, a British luxury ship chartered by the Pentagon, provides a 3-day rest and recreation spot for U.S. troops.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Under a white and red banner, which read “Welcome Aboard Desert Shield Troops,” a female soldier jogged past in form-fitting Lycra shorts and a T-shirt emblazoned with a distinctly unmilitary message: “Dare to Bare.”

“This is our love boat, our recreation ship,” said a Marine guard toting an M-16 rifle, about the only person in sight wearing a uniform.

The ship in question is no ordinary naval vessel, of course, but the Cunard Princess, a British luxury liner that has been chartered by the Pentagon as a rest and recreation spot for U.S. troops involved in Operation Desert Storm.

Men and women serving in Saudi Arabia are occasionally given three days off for a break aboard the Princess, the only place in the conservative Gulf where “R & R” tours are now scheduled.

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A Western official in the region said the idea behind the Princess was to “reduce the security threat and save costs.”

For security reasons, the soldiers and sailors are confined aboard the Princess when it is in port. Apart from that, and warnings to avoid outrageous or violent behavior, they are free to do what they like. There are no uniforms, no salutes and no military discipline on board.

“We’re all civilians right now--at least we’re pretending to be,” said Mark Cardosi, a 20-year-old soldier from Farmington, N.H. “There is absolutely no military atmosphere, though you know everybody else is a soldier.”

For many, the main attraction of their three-day visit to the Princess is the bar. Unlike Saudi Arabia, where many soldiers have been stuck since Iraq invaded Kuwait last August, alcohol flows freely aboard the ship.

“It’s wonderful--that first beer in five months was a cold one,” said Jeffrey Freddie, 24, of Houston. “I’m afraid I had a hard time waking up this morning after what I drank last night.”

As Freddie noted, for many of the young enlisted men aboard, the visit to the Princess is the first chance in their lives when they can drink legally because the drinking age back home is 21. No age limit is enforced aboard the ship, and many of the soldiers and Marines are still in their teens.

After five months in the Saudi desert, another major attraction of the ship is merely the freedom to socialize freely with the opposite sex, even if the encounters are, by necessity, brief. In the cynical humor of the military, Saudi women, who are swathed in black from head to toe and are inaccessible for even an innocent conversation, have been reduced to “BMOs"--Black Moving Objects.

But aboard the Princess, “I haven’t had to buy a drink yet,” beamed one enlisted woman, a 24-year-old named Gina, referring to the attentions of the men aboard. She estimated that about 5% of the passengers were women.

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One soldier said a good percentage of the troops aboard the ship had made a prearranged rendezvous with women soldiers that they had met on duty back in Saudi Arabia.

Once on board, although allocation of cabin space is segregated by sexes, the barriers are not enforced.

A soldier named Jaye mentioned that he had not been to sleep the night before. Asked what he had been doing, he replied: “That’s confidential.” After five months of hard duty in Saudi Arabia, he said, “I’m cooling off.”

Although the soldiers would have preferred to have been flown to a country such as Thailand, which is considerably more liberal than the Gulf countries, “This is all they could provide,” Jaye said. He added that everybody was operating on the hope that the war in the Gulf would be so short that longer leaves would not be practical.

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Because military discipline is not enforced, touchy subjects like fraternization between enlisted ranks and officers are not the kinds of problems that they might be on a military facility.

“Nobody asks who is an officer and who is an enlisted man,” Freddie said. “They don’t want to know.”

The Princess has two floor shows, one from Las Vegas and one involving bands from Britain and Argentina. There is also a discotheque and a video room where movies are shown, as well as a swimming pool and racquetball courts.

Apart from the entertainment, many of the soldiers said they were pleased just to be able to sleep in proper beds and to eat food that was not prepared by the military. “I actually had a bottle of white wine with dinner last night,” declared one soldier triumphantly.

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Many referred to the frenetic pace aboard the ship because the soldiers have only a short break after five months of service “in country.”

“We try to pack it in for three days, do everything in just three days,” Cardosi said. “I only slept for three hours last night. I don’t want to waste my time sleeping. I can do that when I get back.”

Not everyone agrees--one woman soldier said she had turned in at 11 o’clock on her first night aboard, to read a good book.


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