FALCON FORWARD, SAUDI ARABIA, AUG. 28 -- When Maj. Hank Keirsey was ordered to Saudi Arabia with the 82nd Airborne Division, he expected to dash off a military transport plane and encounter hostile Iraqi forces in a matter of minutes. Instead, he stepped off a chartered civilian passenger jet at a Saudi air base and was greeted by a military liaison officer bearing water bottles and lectures on Arab customs.

"It was a strange way to go to war," said Keirsey, a member of an airborne infantry brigade based at Fort Bragg, N.C. Now, more than two weeks into the U.S. military deployment here, he said, "there is a disconnect between the threat of imminent combat and sitting around on your butt."

For commanders of American soldiers dispatched to the scorching desert, efforts to maintain troop morale and readiness have become as critical as amassing military hardware to defend Saudi Arabia. After the initial frenzy of organizing units and adapting to the sun and sand, most troops find themselves in austere tent cities, dusty base camps or isolated military bases with few diversions.

Many of the early fears of an immediate Iraqi invasion have subsided among the troops. "We need to be careful!" Col. John M. McBroom warned the men and women of the 1st Tactical Fighter Wing in a recent unit newsletter. "Less than two weeks into this operation, and I already see complacency setting in. Nothing will kill us faster than complacency."

To boost the spirits of U.S. troops at the Saudi air base, the Saudi government is allowing them to use the installation's $80 million sports complex, complete with Olympic-sized swimming pool, bowling alleys and saunas.

But across the desert at this forward outpost in eastern Saudi Arabia -- where thousands of infantrymen have been crammed into the tiny cabins of a deserted industrial work camp -- amenities are virtually nonexistent.

After three days of field exercises inside Sheridan tanks, where temperatures have soared past 140 degrees, the troops return to a sandy compound surrounded by miles of flat, unchanging desert. They have dubbed it "the gulag."

Aging air conditioners in many barracks have broken down, and the plumbing systems are overtaxed. Because of crowding, many troops are sleeping on the floor of the mess hall.

In the evening, when temperatures fall to the high 90s, the more energetic soldiers do battle over a volleyball net. Television-addicted couch potatoes have turned to sharing dog-eared copies of books.

The troops here are already joking about looking forward to the Bob Hope Christmas show -- not having heard that he does not plan to go. Commanders require their troops to carry gas masks on their belts -- as a precaution against attack, but also as a reminder that they are in a potential combat zone.

"We have to keep the edge," said one officer. For tank commander Lt. Clint Sanders, 24, of Myrtle Beach, S.C., the fear of chemical warfare and combat with the Iraqis already has paled in comparison to worries that his "very serious girlfriend" will not be waiting for him when he returns home.

Compared to South Vietnam, West Germany and other overseas locations to which Americans have been assigned, there are few social or recreational outlets here. Saudi Arabia is a kingdom ruled by strict Islamic dictates: There is no alcohol, movies are vigorously censored, and mingling between the cultures is discouraged.

For now, most American troops are not allowed off military installations. Although the military is beginning to install television sets in some barracks areas, officials are restricted in the videos they can show. No violence, no movies with women in aggressive roles, and no sex. Americans even have banned "Lawrence of Arabia" from their movie lists because its political theme could be considered offensive to the host nation.

Top U.S. military leaders here have started to discuss ways of providing troops with rest and relaxation in the coming months, barring hostilities. "There has been no official decision," said Army Maj. Gen. Gus Pagonis, chief of logistics for Operation Desert Shield. "Right now, there is no scheduled time off."

But Lt. Gen. Walter E. Boomer, who commands U.S. Marines here, said officials report that few people work in the desert during this hottest time of year. Oil company executives say their workers begin to lose effectiveness after about 30 days in the desert heat.

Boomer said he is now working on arrangements to rotate Marines out of the field on a regular basis.

Also frustrating for the troops is a massive information void. Overviews of current diplomatic and military situations are available only at the highest levels. Troops are told little but their unit's mission.

At headquarters compounds, such as Dragon Forward, where the Army's 18th Airborne Corps is based, troops cluster around bulletin boards where the local public affairs officer tacks up clippings from English-language Arab newspapers. The Stars and Stripes military newspaper is scheduled soon to begin delivering 30,000 copies here.

Commanders say the most frequently asked question from their troops is, "When will we go home?" At a Marine encampment on the edge of an airfield, troops have erected the predictable signpost: "Camp Pendleton -- 7,000 miles." Appended is an editorial comment from the lyrics of a song: "We gotta git outta this place if it's the last thing we ever do."