The Black Hawk pilots and gunners of Alpha Company are still waiting for their helicopters to arrive from ships at port. That gives them plenty of time -- too much time, they say -- to sit and stew about what lies ahead.
As they flop on bunks inside tents in this desert outpost, the crews pass the hours by mentally reviewing the rituals and demands of their jobs. If war comes, they say, they are trained, rested and ready.
"I'm not going to be nervous -- I'm just going to concentrate on doing my job," said Spc. Shaun Hancock, 22, a crew chief who mans an M-60 machine gun at a door gunner's post.
As part of the Army's 101st Airborne Division, the crews must ferry troops to the front and provide covering fire. While they wait for their own helicopters, they train on aircraft borrowed from other units.
Chief Warrant Officer Denver Sizemore, 33, is a Black Hawk instructor. He trains fellow pilots on the challenges of flying in the desert, where howling sandstorms blot out the sky and blast helicopters with waves of sand.
"This is a tough place on helicopters," Sizemore said. "Right now, I'm trying to buy enough time to get these guys fully trained in this environment."
The crews' focus on the repetitions and routines of training seems to keep their minds from drifting to thoughts of combat and mortal danger.
"I don't think I'm repressing anything or holding back," said Sgt. Lizardo Leyva, 27, a crew chief. "I'm just concentrating on doing my job and putting my training to work."
Many crew members say they hope war never comes. But if it does, they say, they want to get on with it as quickly as possible.
"We talk about a lot of 'what-if' scenarios -- what if this happens ... then what would we do?" said Chief Warrant Officer Chris Bentzel, 29, a pilot.
Sizemore, the instructor, said he's been flying Black Hawks long enough to feel supremely confident under any conditions. He also takes solace in the fact that helicopter crews performed so well -- and safely -- in 1991.
"It's like driving a car after a while," he said. "And even if bullets are coming at you, you'll still do the same thing -- fly the aircraft and keep it in the air."
-- David Zucchino