EASTERN SAUDI ARABIA — Only six months ago, the 82nd Airborne was riding high on its successes in Panama and honing its skills for more of the same.
In the months after the U.S. invasion there, members of the elite force were refining their ability to distinguish between civilians and combatants and practicing the arts of subduing sporadic resistance from within city buildings and waging war in the jungle.
Today, the 82nd Airborne Division is a world away from Panama. It is camped below the Saudi Arabian border with Kuwait, its quarters camouflaged in the crevices of a sandy rock quarry. Here, miles away from the nearest city and thousands of miles from a jungle, the battle-hardened 82nd is trying to carve a role for itself in a conflict that is more likely to pit tanks against tanks than lightly armed paratroopers against banana republic insurrectionists.
The 82nd, which is based at Ft. Bragg, N.C., had a critical mission in the earliest phases of the massive buildup of forces in Saudi Arabia. These were the first U.S. ground forces to arrive here to face down the tank army of Iraq's Saddam Hussein.
They arrived Aug. 10, while Navy ships steamed toward the Persian Gulf and more heavily armed ground troops lumbered toward sea-lift ports in the United States, weeks away from arrival here. Armed with a few hundred antitank missiles, some artillery and their M-16 rifles, the paratroop unit claims to have single-handedly discouraged the Iraqi leader from making any further move toward Saudi Arabia.
But now comes the hard part, when the 82nd, accustomed to firing the opening shots of any American war, must wait for others to start the fight and then move in to support them.
"The toughest thing is the waiting," Sgt. Robert Moreland, 23, an 82nd infantryman, said as he sheltered in the shade of a date palm from the growing heat of the morning. "When we jumped into Panama, we jumped right into the action. Here, we're waiting for a defensive action, and most of these guys are trained for the offensive."
Moreland and several other members of the 82nd's 3rd Brigade were among those who parachuted into Torrijos International Airport in the opening hours of the U.S. invasion of Panama last December. Several others interviewed last week were among the 82nd paratroopers who conducted the 1983 U.S. operation in Grenada.
But if Iraq opens hostilities against Saudi Arabia by sending its vaunted tank army over the border, the paratroopers would be cast in a less glorious role than the one they played in the two earlier operations.
"We remain the reserves for the XVIII Airborne Corps and can react to any rear-area threat," said Col. Glenn Hale, commander of one of the division's three brigades.
Another of the 82nd's defensive roles could be potentially more dangerous than those they played in Panama or in Grenada: The division might be called on to jump behind the front lines of an Iraqi tank attack and disrupt the oncoming enemy's supply lines.
In the meantime, however, soldiers and officers alike consistently complain that the waiting, compounded by their peripheral role in a defensive war, is a burden as heavy as their 100-pound rucksacks in the 120-degree heat.
At the same time, they acknowledge that they would have been vastly outgunned if there had been an Iraqi onslaught in the opening weeks of their stay here. While many expressed confidence that their hit-and-run antitank tactics would have won the day, others concede that it would not have been a war for which the 82nd is ideally suited.
"It's a different mission, fighting heavy armor, and we have to reorient a little bit," said Capt. Jim Huggins, commander of an infantry company. "It takes a different focus for the troops."
The 82nd trains for all types of warfare, including tank-killing operations in the desert, which the troops practice at the National Training Center at Ft. Irwin, Calif.
But the scenario they are now playing out in the desert appears to have become a lower priority in recent years, when "low-intensity conflict"--war fought with guns and terror, not tanks and aircraft--topped the chart. Among the 82nd's 3,000-member 3rd Brigade, only one battalion, about 500 troops, participated in maneuvers 18 months ago at the National Training Center, where Army units train to fight Soviet-style tank armies.
"The light infantry needs experience in the desert, and we need to work with armored vehicles and we need to work against armored vehicles," Col. Hale told a small group of reporters visiting overnight with the 82nd recently.
"For the infantrymen, life is pretty cruel out here," Hale said. "It's hard on anybody that doesn't have a lot of equipment. I wish that they could increase the number of light infantry battalions that go to the National Training Center."
For now, the 82nd's only chance to win back a major role in Saudi Arabia would be in a U.S.-Saudi offensive.
"The thing with the soldiers is having to wait," said Command Sgt. Maj. William Allen, a veteran of Panama and Grenada. "Like most Americans, we're just not patient. If we're going to do something, we like to do it."