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Soldiers Enjoy American Bounty Amid Possibility of War

November 29, 2002|Mark Fineman | Times Staff Writer

CAMP NEW YORK, Kuwait — Standing guard Thursday outside the Skybridge mess hall in this U.S. Army tent city in the desert just 15 miles from Iraq, there was a live, 10-pound American turkey -- and scores of 70-ton American tanks.

Inside, a giant-screen Zenith Digital Home Theater played American videos, sheet cakes bore the Statue of Liberty, the American flag and a biblical passage from Corinthians, and there was food "enough for an army," said Col. David Perkins, commander of the 2nd Brigade.

By day's end, Perkins and his officer corps had dished out to the brigade's nearly 4,000 U.S. soldiers in this and three similar camps on Iraq's desolate southern doorstep about 1,000 pounds of imported turkey, 2,500 pounds of roast beef, 96 cases of candied yams, 42 cases of stuffing, 5,000 rolls and assorted pies.

For Perkins, there was a powerful message in the meal, far beyond simple American tradition.

"It's kind of a tribute to our nation that it has the wealth and the willpower to give them this kind of quality of life in a place like this," the 44-year-old from New Hampshire said.

And as his brigade trains here for possible war with Iraq, Perkins added, the holiday message to his troops carries even greater weight.

"We tell them, 'If you end up headed north, you'll soon discover you're thousands of miles from home and you are being better taken care of and better fed than the Iraqi soldiers who are in their own country.' We don't consider our soldiers fodder."

For now, Perkins and his 2nd Brigade, part of the 3rd Infantry Division out of Ft. Stewart in Georgia, are here just for training, a regularly scheduled exercise called Desert Spring that began two months ago. Perkins said the training has made his forces both combat-ready and deserving of a day off.

The Army is using these well-equipped and heavily fortified bases for live-fire artillery drills and mock war games that simulate a ground offensive into Kuwait's neighbor to the north. The camps are named for the states that suffered the most casualties in last year's Sept. 11 attacks. Each camp covers miles of desert and provides air-conditioned barracks tents, video libraries, Internet rooms, sophisticated satellite communication centers and telephone trailers.

In recent months, the U.S. military has expanded its presence in this nation it helped liberate from Iraqi occupation almost 12 years ago, doubling the number of personnel to more than 12,000.

A small contingent of Marines from Camp Pendleton arrived a few weeks ago and has been building yet another desert base, Camp Commando, which would house Marines in any future conflict.

"Look at what we've done," camp commander Col. John Cunnings proudly told his detachment from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, after a taped Thanksgiving Day bagpipe rendition. "We've built a whole city."

For most here, Thursday was a quiet oasis of reflection and celebration amid what appears to some a gathering storm of war.

As Col. Perkins put it: "There's the very real possibility of conflict.... And the proximity of conflict just gives [Thanksgiving] that added significance. It makes the people here more reflective and more thankful."

At least a third of the Army soldiers here have been deployed in conflict zones before: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Haiti, Kosovo province and even the 1991 Persian Gulf War. For many, Thursday was not the first holiday away from home.

"It's always a little hard spending time away from family, especially on the holidays," said Spc. Al Arias, 22, of Whittier, a gunner with a tank crew at Camp New York. "But we really don't have that much to complain about. We've got food, tents, and we look after each other."

Many others interviewed in the camps, from buck privates to task force commanders, spoke of their company, detachment or battalion as a second family.

"I have family back home too, and I miss them," said Lt. Col. Stephen Twitty, a 17-year Army veteran from South Carolina who commands a 750-member task force that includes a tank company, and chemical-defense and air-defense platoons.

Of the Thanksgiving Day celebrations, the 39-year-old lieutenant colonel added: "Without a doubt in my mind, it sends a message.... The United States of America is willing to stand up for what's right.... I'm glad to be here so my daughter won't be here in 10 years."

And to the Iraqis, he said, the message is, "When you're free, you can get stuff like this."

That imagery was repeated in camp after camp across Kuwait's northern desert, about 1,600 square miles -- one-fourth of the nation -- that has been sealed off by U.S. and Kuwaiti forces for the exercises.

A boombox blared Jay-Z, Scarface and Tupac Shakur in the shadow of a long row of towering 155-millimeter howitzers at Camp Virginia, 20 miles south of Camp New York, as half a dozen members of a Multiple Launch Rocket System team played a game of three-on-three on a new basketball court.

"We know what our job is. We know what to do," said Spc. Robert Greenleaf, 25, of Muncie, Ind., during a game break. "But we got to relax too. You can't do this job all stressed out. Mostly, what I'm feeling this Thanksgiving is, when you come to another country in a situation like this, you got to appreciate what you've got in America."

The most powerful message, though, came late in the afternoon inside the dining tent at Camp New York.

In an opening prayer, Capt. John Jensen, chaplain of the 10th Engineering Battalion, said: "Thank you God for the freedom we enjoy. Thank you for the families we can miss."

And the icing on the cake carried a biblical quote from II Corinthians 9:11: "Being enriched in everything to all bountifulness, which causeth through us thanksgiving to God."

*

Times staff writer Patrick McDonnell contributed to this report.

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