WITH U.S. TROOPS, SAUDI ARABIA -- Getting tired of baking in a tank all day waiting for the war? Fed up with that same old daily desert routine? Bored with monochromatic, monotonous sandy scenery?
Desert Shield Radio 107 has a diversion for the weary, homesick GI in Saudi Arabia: Enter the "I Saw Elvis at Desert Shield" contest. Send that entry on a card or in a letter and "tell us where you saw the King and describe the encounter!"
It's far tamer than the Greaseman, and Robin Williams/Adrian Cronauer would have cringed at the page-long list of ground rules, but a growing cadre of Armed Forces Radio and Television Service (AFRTS) disc jockeys is fanning out across the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, broadcasting everything from pop hits to desert survival tips from tiny mobile radio stations camouflaged in olive drab vans.
On Sunday afternoons, troops can tune in for live play-by-play action from the Scud Bowl (as in the Iraqi Scud missiles now aimed at Saudi Arabia), the Saudi soccer stadium turned U.S. military sports arena. One recent football game featured the Women Marines vs. the Female Navy Nurses. And they can request a favorite tune by picking up their dusty green tactical combat phones and giving Oasis 99 a ring.
"The trick here is avoiding breaking operational security," said Navy Chief Bob Herskovitz, afternoon broadcaster for Oasis 99. Radio request lines can have serious security implications in this combat environment. Commanders don't want Saddam Hussein tuning in to Armed Forces Radio to find the latest location of the 82nd Airborne Division or the 4th Marine Expeditionary Brigade. "Sometimes you have too many listeners," says Herskovitz.
Inventive troops identify their requests in code form -- so the station sends an oldie out to the men in the "The Junkyard," a rap song to "Alpha Alpha," a Top 40 hit to "Camp Sunmateo," Motown to "Club Mid."
The hottest requests, according to broadcasters, are romantic songs coupled with dedications to wives and girlfriends back home, which the troops then tape-record and mail to their loved ones.
For troops who don't have the luxury of telephones in their Bradley Fighting Vehicles, Deejay Sgt. Dave Hamerly -- that's Sledge Hammer to his listening audience -- makes daily desert tent calls in his Hum-V jeep. Hamerly is not your average radio deejay. When he wants to boost his listening audience, he roams the desert handing out free radios donated by U.S. companies and charity groups to lonely troops.
"Most of the troops had no radios until we started delivering them," said Hamerly.
Between tunes, this advertisement-free network fills its time with helpful hints for military listeners.
"You have the power to decide who gets your money and things if anything should happen to you," intones one spot. "It's called a will."
Too grim? Listen to this. "If you're lost in the desert, don't panic -- stay near your vehicle. It's where your supplies are."
Or how about the question: "If you should become a prisoner of war, would you know how to act? Read the tips in the military Code of Conduct now before it's too late."
Although Armed Forces Radio has broadcast to U.S. troops during every conflict since World War II, establishing a radio network in Saudi Arabia has been a frustrating, hair-pulling struggle for military officials.
(Television has met with even less success, according to other U.S. military officials. The Saudi government continues to balk at allowing the irreverent Arsenio Hall, David Letterman, Johnny Carson and their exotically dressed guests to invade the living rooms of their sheltered kingdom via Armed Forces Television.)
Initially, Saudi officials were wary of allowing Western influences to be sent via radio, lest the sounds be heard by impressionable Saudi listeners. The U.S. military alleviated some of that concern with a tough list of rules for its radio broadcasters: no jokes that denigrate the Saudi royal family or the Islamic faith, no religious Christmas music (instrumentals and "Jingle Bells" are okay), nothing pornographic, no mention of Christian religious figures.
"Most of it is common sense," said Lt. Cmdr. John Hopkins, who heads AFRTS here. "If you have to ask whether it's offensive, you already know the answer."
Once the battle with the Saudi bureaucracy was won, radio technicians had to fight the desert elements.
In the blistering midday heat, which still creeps into the 90s, signals "drop dead," said Hopkins. And in this bleak, flat terrain, the mobile radio vans have had problems erecting towers high enough to transmit signals long distances. Aging equipment has faltered, tubes have fizzled and troops have stewed over lack of news, sports and music. U.S. military commanders, concerned about exposing locations of sensitive military installations to the Iraqis through radio signals, also initially limited where the radio stations were allowed to operate.
After almost two months of operation and experimentation, the radio signals still don't reach out and touch many of the isolated desert units. And President Bush's call for doubling the troop strength here will only stress the system further.
AFRTS already has dispatched its entire emergency fleet of four radio vans to Saudi Arabia. Three are in operation and the fourth is scheduled to begin transmitting in the next few weeks, when the additional troops begin arriving.
For many of the military deejays, who usually play to sparse audiences at U.S. military bases in Europe, Operation Desert Shield is ratings heaven.
"We have a captive audience," said Sgt. Bryan Spann, whose voice was broadcast to U.S. forces in Italy before the current Middle East crisis. "They are much more appreciative."
The broadcasters of Oasis 99 have wasted no time taking advantage of the fan appreciation.
When they wanted a table for the concrete apron outside their broadcast booth, where many Marines gather after loading their plates at a nearby mess hall, the deejays held a picnic table contest among competing military units. In this case the radio station was the winner: A Navy Seabee unit scrounged enough wood to build a large octagonal table with benches for the new AFRTS Plaza.
And when the van's air-conditioning unit broke down, three military units arrived to compete for the privilege of repairing it.
In a potential combat zone, the creativity of contest prizes is frequently limited. The winner of the recent Ugliest Gunny Sergeant contest received prepackaged military meals-ready-to-eat (MRE) for two catered by a radio deejay.
"That didn't go over real well because the winner had to eat both of the MREs," said Herskovitz.
The Oasis team has added a popular new accent to its evening show in the past two weeks -- British broadcaster Alton Andrews, who volunteered for "this gig" as soon as he heard British forces were being deployed to Saudi Arabia. While the British military broadcasting system is waiting for its station to be flown to Saudi Arabia, Andrews is hosting an afternoon request show with an American announcer. (U.S. military officials refused to turn over their airwaves to a British broadcaster for two hours a day without an American deejay as a chaperone.)
"We're making history," said Andrews, a 33-year-old civilian broadcaster working on contract with the British military radio system. "It's the first time our two armed forces have had a joint radio operation."
The added benefit for Andrews: "Coming from Great Britain, where it's cloudy and cold and people pay a lot of money going in search of sun and sand, I'm lucky -- I'm here getting it free of charge."