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Regional Outlook : Supplying America's Desert Warriors : GIs at the front hope that the mirage in the distance is an advancing beer truck from home.

August 28, 1990|KIM MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia — Cpl. Christopher C. and Pfc. Norman M. sit companionably on the roof of an all-terrain vehicle they've christened Sarah Jane, tending to a TOW anti-tank missile launcher between them and waiting for the ration box in front of the truck to turn into a swimming pool. You know. The way it does in the beer commercial. The one where the leggy woman walks out holding two frosty beer bottles, and somebody says, "Where did that come from?"

In fact, they'd be happy if the pizza would just get there. "We ordered Domino's three weeks ago," Norman deadpanned. "It ain't got here yet."

But as the mercury crawls past 113 degrees, the only hint of water is a distant mirage hovering out across the miles of scrub and hot sand, out past a line of high-voltage electrical lines and a gray ribbon of road they've stared at so long it's starting to dance on the desert floor. That's the road the Iraqi tanks would come speeding down from the north. That's the road where the missile goes.

They play poker for swallows of water out of their canteens to pass the hours until lunch--a lukewarm, vacuum-packed, mass-produced, field-issue tray of beef stew and assorted bland accompaniments known as an MRE--"meal, ready-to-eat." They're carefully calculated at 3,600 calories per serving. The water in the canteens is the temperature of hot tea.

"I'm fixin' on goin' for a swim in that manage," says Norman.

"Mirage," grunts Christopher.

"Whatever."

In the Saudi Arabian desert, which has become an inhospitable home away from home for the largest American troop deployment since the Vietnam War, comfort is where you find it. A patch of shade near the radiator grill of a truck. A stolen splash of water rubbed furtively across the face. A foxhole in the sand with a spread-out bedroll.

Supporting the troops in the field has become a round-the-clock proposition for several central logistics centers, responsible for dispensing the more than 1 billion pounds of ammunition, weapons, food, uniforms and other supplies being shipped and airlifted into Saudi Arabia for a troop force that soon could reach 100,000.

U.S. military logistics experts on the ground in Saudi Arabia only last weekend went on a new work schedule that is merely punishing instead of debilitating. They now work 20 hours and get four hours off; before it was 36 hours on and four off.

Their goal is to build a 30 day supply of food, ammunition, and any other materiel the troops in the field will need, according to Maj. Gen. William G. Pagonis, who is overseeing the supply operation as commanding general of the army's central support command.

Camped in tent cities, prefabricated housing and occasional empty buildings across the desert, simple things--things like breakfast and showers, laundry and toilet paper--have become major undertakings for the first wave of American soldiers setting down on Saudi soil.

The initial field kitchen designed to feed 250 soldiers from the 1st Tactical Fighter Wing was actually serving more than 1,000 by the time the second and finally a third opened up. Army personnel on the Air Force base have been shepherded into the enlisted men's club, quickly dubbed "Mission Inn." A few divisions contracted with local Hardee's fast-food branches to supply thousands of burgers and fries for daily lunch. For soldiers on exercises in the field, sometimes for three days at a stretch, it's MRE.

Water has been an even more formidable obstacle. In the searing desert heat, each soldier must drink anywhere from 4 to 6 gallons a day depending on how long he's out in the sun. Each also consumes up to 14 more gallons daily--shaving, brushing teeth, showering, cooking. In places where there's potable water, canteens filled out of the faucet do the trick. Otherwise, it's bottled mineral water hauled in by truck, or 5,000-gallon "water buffalo" storage tanks pulled on trailers out to the troops.

In the most remote locations, reverse-osmosis water purification units trucked in with the troops can take brackish well water, saltwater, stagnant water, even muddy water and make it drinkable--at a rate of up to 3,000 gallons an hour. Over lunch at a desert mess hall one day, a question about how the soldiers' water tasted elicited a host of responses, of which only one was printable: "It tastes like pool water," said a corporal from Virginia.

At many camps, troops are now limited to three-minute showers, three times a week, and no running water while shaving.

The 82nd Airborne Division, the first unit to hit the ground in Saudi Arabia, at first set up camp in tents and used Saudi military bathroom facilities, where the showers do double duty as toilets. Breakfast at first was fruit bread, water and perhaps an orange. Lunch and dinner were provided by Saudis under contract with the U.S. military, and cases of "Saddam's Revenge" became almost as frequent as heat exhaustion complaints.

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