WITH U.S. FORCES, SAUDI ARABIA -- Tens of thousands of American soldiers here have only fading snapshots of wives left back home, but Staff Sgt. Larry Speck, of Hampton, Va., has the real thing -- a wife stationed at the same air base.

They work in adjacent buildings, live in the same barracks.

And yet, he can't so much as touch her.

"You can't even walk out there holding hands, even though we're married," said Speck, 26, an Air Force vehicle mechanic who sleeps in the men's section of the barracks while his wife, who works for a unit studying the effects of chemical warfare, sleeps in the women's. "We're still looking for a closet with a lock."

The Specks' military-style married life is one of many adjustments and irritations facing Washington area servicemen and women assigned to the Saudi Arabian desert.

For a handful of mechanics from the 1st Tactical Fighter Wing based at Langley Air Force Base in southeastern Virginia, whatever excitement there was at first has evaporated like a puddle of water in the sweltering heat.

"My kid's going to be born while I'm here," said Sgt. Fred Dunning, 29, of Richmond, whose wife is eight months pregnant. "I've missed half of fishing season. I'm going to miss hunting season probably. I'm missing football season. I missed my birthday. I'm going to miss my {10-month-old} daughter's first Halloween, and maybe Christmas.

"That's the worst part," he added, "not being with my daughter."

Those like Dunning who arrived Aug. 9, shortly after President Bush ordered U.S. troops into the region, found themselves in the middle of a war zone without an army.

"There was nobody between us and them," Dunning said. "Nobody. We were it. That was kind of shaky. I can't speak for others, but I know I was kind of shaky."

Since then, tens of thousands of troops have poured into the region and the immediate fear has dissipated.

What once may have seemed like an adventure now feels like a forced march, and the troops are tired -- tired of the long workdays and scant entertainment; tired of the packaged MREs, which in military lingo stands for Meal Ready to Eat but which some call Meals Refused by Ethiopia; tired of the sweltering heat that makes them sweat so much their uniforms are practically all white with salt at the end of the day from evaporated perspiration.

"I was kind of excited about it" at first, said Army Sgt. Hayward Gills, 42, of Newport News, Va. "The heat kind of changed all that."

Staff Sgt. Ronald K. Speight, 29, of Southeast Washington, agreed that some of the initial excitement has ebbed. "We're over there for a good cause, but I'd like the ball to get rolling," he said. "It's to the point now that it can be resolved in a diplomatic manner."

For the men and women from Langley, life has settled into a mundane routine.

They work 12-hour shifts, six days a week. They live in a tent city nicknamed "Bedrock," for Fred Flintstone's home town, and eat two hot meals a day and packaged rations for the third in a mess tent dubbed "Dino's Diner." They carry gas masks everywhere they go. They drink three to six gallons of water a day. They can watch movies every night. And if they're lucky, they can slip into the nearby town for shopping trips or a bite at the Pizza Sheik restaurant.

Their khaki tents are air conditioned, though troops stationed farther out in the desert aren't so lucky. Cots are crammed in two feet apart, 12 to a tent. Lining the edges of the tents are strings of electric lights.

Hundreds of soldiers share 13 portable johns that look like those used at Washington parades -- except these are made of wood, and splinters are a hazard of war. To wash their hands, soldiers use water stored in a nearby canvas sack hanging from a wooden stand.

Some soldiers have resorted to gallows humor.

On one tent, someone has posted two signs: "Danger! No Swimming! Lifeguard Not on Duty" and "Absolutely NO Thong Bathing Suits Allowed."

Like others, Sgt. Dennis Davis Dunham's tent was cluttered with blankets, care packages, chemical warfare suits and sweat-encrusted uniforms. Next to his bed were a few chocolate chip cookies and potato chips sent to him by his family in Forestville; stashed inside a canvas air-conditioning duct was a lukewarm can of soda.

Because the men work staggered shifts round-the-clock, all 12 occupants are never in the tent together.

Dunham, 26, doesn't even know some of his tentmates. "I see lumps there in the morning when I get up," he said. "No faces."

At times, they say they wonder why they're here and, more often, wonder whether the folks back home support their effort. "In a way, we're right for being here," Dunham said. "But some people think we're here for cheaper gas."

Why does he think he's here? "To stop a nut."

Dunham and his buddies say the worst part is that they have no idea when they are going home. They can't even draw up a short-timer's calendar. For now, all they can do is count the days they have been here.

"Forty days," Dunning said a few days ago. "Forty days in hell."

"No, this isn't hell," Speck said. "But you can feel the heat from there."