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SHOWDOWN WITH IRAQ

U.S. Troops in Gulf Find a Tough Foe: Sandstorms

March 14, 2003|Tony Perry and David Wharton | Times Staff Writers

NORTHERN KUWAIT — The sandstorm blew in after nightfall, howling through a string of U.S. military camps along the Iraqi border and forcing Marine Sgt. Mike Yager into unusual duty.

Trained to carry an M-16 rifle, Yager found himself taking up a pocketknife and heavy thread to mend his battered canvas tent.

"Sand was blowing horizontal," the 25-year-old from New Hampshire said. "Suddenly the tent was jumping and flapping."

As the troops in his 1st Marine Division worked through the night, a fine grit caked their faces, making them look like kabuki actors.

Men who had trained side by side for months were calling one another by the wrong names.

Yager described the storm, which raged into the early morning hours Thursday, as "the worst we've seen."

Kuwaitis have a word -- towz -- for the fronts that barrel down from Iraq with 60-mph ferocity. The sandstorms, a year-round occurrence, grow more frequent in spring, and the latest squall provided another reminder to the more than 250,000 U.S. and British troops stationed in the gulf that, if they launch an assault in coming days, the weather could be a daunting foe.

Since the Persian Gulf War in 1991, the U.S. has tried to acclimate its forces by conducting annual military exercises in Kuwait. Marines and other troops are outfitted with specialized goggles and protective clothing.

Some even find the conditions comparable to the Southern California desert.

"It's just like Twentynine Palms, with April windy and rainy, and May starting to get toasty," said Maj. Terry Johnson, a spokesman with the 3rd Marine Air Wing. "Wherever the president directs us to go, we can go."

High winds, however, may have contributed to a helicopter crash that killed four U.S. soldiers in Kuwait last month. Such weather makes all types of flights more difficult.

At the very least, it's a nuisance.

Sand fouls engines and clogs the safety catches on firearms. It causes electricity brownouts and is responsible for a hacking cough that has become common among otherwise healthy young men and women.

"It stays in your eyes," said Sgt. Eberardo Loza, 21, of Victorville. "You blow your nose, and you get a giant sandball."

Military forecasters have monitored the weather and accurately predicted this storm. It brought northerly winds beginning at 8 p.m. Wednesday, roaring like a fleet of diesel trucks across unobstructed terrain. Visibility quickly dropped to a few feet.

At a camp northwest of Kuwait City, 16 members of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division had ventured off to take showers about a mile away and were caught by surprise. "You couldn't see 3 feet in front of you," said Pvt. Michael Ramos, 19.

The group sought refuge in a large truck for several hours until someone came along with a global-positioning device to guide them back, grimier than when they had left.

In the meantime, their fellow soldiers had been struggling to tighten rope lines until someone got the idea to position 63-ton Abrams tanks as windscreens.

It was equally arduous at Camp Matilda, where the storm raged so thick that Marines became disoriented in the short distance between their tents and portable toilets. A vehicle convoy got lost outside the camp.

Those who stayed inside found themselves reinforcing their quarters with ropes, poles and sandbags, battling gusts that wormed through every crevice. Miniature dust storms arose inside 180-foot-long tents where troops could barely see from one end to the other.

At Camp Victory, a few soldiers with the Army's 101st Airborne Division were caught outside and wandered around blindly.

Even the U.S. Navy felt the effects -- sand covered the deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln as the vessel moved roughly through choppy waters in the gulf.

Still, the troops insisted that they were ready to wage war in the desert.

"The first Desert Storm had the same problem," Sgt. 1st Class Jeff Lujan said. "In all actuality, it favors us. They're on the defense. We're on the offense. We're hunting them. We can move without them seeing us."

Tank drivers boasted that thermal imaging technology allows them to spot targets in zero visibility. Gunners said computers help them adjust for wind speed, temperature and barometric pressure.

By Thursday morning, with the air clearer and winds blowing more gently, troops calmly brushed off cots, swept away piles of sand and washed the grit from their teeth. Black Hawk helicopters landed outside Lujan's camp. Elsewhere, Marines repaired any remaining rips and tears.

It was not the first towz they had endured and probably not the last. Cpl. Quanah Striker, attending to his dust-covered rifle, marveled at the thought.

"I don't see where there's any more sand to blow," the 21-year-old said.

"Where does it all come from?"

*

Perry reported from Camp Matilda in Kuwait and Wharton from Doha, Qatar. Times staff writers Geoffrey Mohan in Kuwait; David Zucchino at Camp Victory, Kuwait; Carol J. Williams aboard the Lincoln; and Mark Magnier in Kuwait City contributed to this report.

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