The Virginia National Guard's tiniest reserve unit has been called up for Middle East duty, and its three members are packing their tape recorders, typewriters, cameras and sketch pads to capture the history of American troops in Operation Desert Shield.

The commander of the 116th Military History Detachment, Maj. Robert K. Wright Jr., is a historian at the Army Center of Military History in the District. His entire troop contingent is made up of Ladona Kirkland, 28, a computer graphics specialist from Dale City, and John Freund, 22, an art student who works in a Springfield record store.

The 116th and six other Army historical units from across the country were activated this week and will leave soon for Saudi Arabia. There, they will gather documents, interview soldiers, take photographs and draw sketches of life in the desert.

"We'll interview people about their daily activities and get as much down on tape as possible," said Kirkland, who will celebrate Christmas today with her husband and 15-month-old baby before departing to Fort Lee, Va., her last stop before the Persian Gulf. "What we want to do is get a feel for life over there."

The findings of the historical units will be used to compile the official Army history of Operation Desert Shield. Their work will be placed in the National Archives for historians and the public, and will be used in course work at war colleges and military schools, according to historians at the military history center.

Wright wrote in an essay on the purpose of the units: "We are not there to write a book, we are there to make sure the book writers can find what they need."

Wright added that American efforts to "gather and preserve battle details" date to 1775 and the battle with the British at Lexington.

After World War I, when documentation of the war was being collected, it became clear that there were gaps that could have been filled if historians had been in the field. Since then, Wright said, each branch of the armed services has involved historians in military operations, collecting bits of history as it happens.

Marine historical units dispatched to Panama last year as part of Operation Just Cause returned with 14 crates of material, according to a historian at the Marine Corps Historical Center.

Many items, such as enemy weapons and uniforms, along with the photographs and sketches collected by the units, wind up in military museums. Authors writing about wars often use the field units' reports, sketches and tapes.

John Charles Roach, an Alexandria artist and Navy reservist, recently returned from the Middle East, where he was called to active duty to paint watercolor and oil scenes of Operation Desert Shield.

Roach spent several weeks in Saudi Arabia and nine days aboard the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy, drawing sketches of military preparations and recording the daily life of the troops. "We are trying to capture a little piece of history before it's lost," Roach said.

He intends to paint scenes that will include the MREs (meals ready to eat), two Marines playing chess near the aircraft carrier and a scene showing a U.S. ship stopping a 200,000-ton tanker in the Persian Gulf.

Freund, who is working toward a bachelor's degree at the Corcoran School of Art in the District, said he joined the National Guard when he was 17 to make money for college. Now his artistic talent will be used to draw maps and sketches to accompany historical reports.

"This is not exactly the way I planned to see the Middle East," said Freund, who packed his gear at Manassas Memorial Armory this week. "I guess I'll be drawing types of weapons, tanks, how bases are laid out."

Kirkland, who resigned from the Army and joined the reserves after having a baby, said she had not counted on spending the holidays 7,000 miles away in the desert. But as jobs go over there, she said, hers is better than most.

"Instead of reading about what is going on over there in the newspapers," she said, "I'll be right there finding out myself."