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Fighting Boredom on the Edge of Terror

The soldiers of 'Cyclone' Company cope with the wind and wait for the order to move out.

March 27, 2003|Geoffrey Mohan | Times Staff Writer

WITH U.S. FORCES IN IRAQ — Members of "Cyclone" Company are learning the adage about war consisting of boredom and terror. Like thousands of their compatriots in and around Iraq, they have felt terror, and probably will again. But for the last two days, it has been mainly boredom, and they are learning there are only so many ways to deal with that.

Knees and backs aching from sleeping like a tangled litter, groggy GIs stumbled Wednesday into the bright haze and cold of a sandstorm, just as they had the day before. They hunched over and lighted cigarette after cigarette, trading rumors, talking about what they'll do when they get home (sex, a shower, fast food). They cleaned fistfuls of sand from their guns.

Inside a tank, a gunner sat on a fold-down seat the size of a small barstool, propping his feet on the breech of the massive, 120-millimeter cannon, and nodded off.

Members of the fire-support team sprawled in a Bradley fighting vehicle, occupying a cluttered space the size of a half-bath. Some slept in the turret; others rearranged boxes -- food, water, ammunition, personal gear -- to make any kind of horizontal space on which to recline. Everything they touched sent up a puff of dust.

With a final push to Baghdad apparently looming, members of the Army's 4th Battalion, 64th Armored Regiment waited for daily intelligence reports, news rundowns, anything.

On Wednesday, it was news that the 3rd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment lost two tanks to shoulder-fired rockets, but suffered no casualties, and that U.S. B-52s wiped out 50 Soviet-era tanks of the Iraqi Republican Guard Medina Division.

But there was no battle news about the 64th Armored Regiment. The soldiers played CDs, cards, Game Boys. Some read the camouflage-cover Bible that is the official "Operation Desert Spring" edition for the battalion. Others read Maxim or Hustler, mostly looking at the pictures.

A soldier from the adjacent "Assassins" Company was lost for 12 hours Tuesday night in the sandstorm after striking out to visit a tank 150 yards away. He was found Wednesday morning, cold and dehydrated but otherwise fine. He was two kilometers north and two west -- a virtual chess knight's move into more forbidding desert and enemy territory.

Before Wednesday ended, a medic also became lost in the maelstrom, and tanks used infrared scanning to look for him. He was luckier than the Assassins soldier. He was found within hours.

Battalion Chaplain Peter Johnson, a Glendora native, tried to make a cup of coffee from an ammunition can of Starbucks coffee he had stockpiled, but his stove was clogged with sand. Bored, he headed off into the desert armed with faith and a global positioning system, going from tank to tank to talk with the troops, who were glad to see a new face.

At the first platoon's No. 1 tank, nicknamed "Cold Beer," the crew told Johnson that loader Michael Dennis, 27, of Erie, Pa., woke them up screaming "No! No! I can't hold the wheel!" Dennis said he had no idea what the dream was about. They laughed it off as battle jitters. Three nights before, the company was harassed by mortar fire and shadowy figures flitting through the fields near Najaf, to the south.

Sgt. Don Martin, the tank's 26-year-old gunner from Huntsville, Ala., said he looked forward to doing a "bore sighting," a precise if tedious process used to calibrate the massive cannon's aim. "I hate bore sighting, but this morning I said, 'I'll do a bore sighting just to have something to do.' "

The soldiers watched a falcon emerge from the haze. It glided low, looking for prey, then disappeared into the tan smudge without finding anything.

No one was outside the next two tanks, so Johnson walked on to another tank that emerged from the haze. Driver Bobby Straudt, 25, of Dallas, lamented his lot in war. "We keep telling each other, if this is what war is like, I don't want to come back to another one," he said. "In the movies, it's all attack, attack, attack."

Halfway to the next tank, Johnson retreated. He couldn't see the tank in front of him or the one behind. "Time to connect the dots and go back," he said, slowly retracing his steps.

As the company bedded down, the first sergeant warned over the radio that anyone going out for any reason in the night should not walk more than a few paces from their vehicle. From that distance, the Army's mightiest equipment disappears into a terrifying blackness, and terror takes over boredom.

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