When Gerald Stevens, a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division in Saudi Arabia, first wrote home to his mother in Hagerstown, Md., he spoke excitedly, describing heat so intense that it burst Pepsi cans and jokingly reminding her not to send pornographic pictures because of strict Saudi customs.
As the days dawdle on and Stevens approaches two months of duty in the Persian Gulf, the novelty of the first camel sighting has given way to desire for a cold shower and a cool breeze. The days are long and lonely, he writes. The joys few.
"Now that we are only fighting heat, sand, boredom and loneliness," Stevens said in a Sept. 19 letter, "our PX and the mail are our two biggest morale boosters."
For the families of the 200,000 U.S. military personnel in the Middle East, word from the desert also is the highlight of their day. Telephone calls are rare, expensive and hurried.
Through letters trickling in from the ships and land bases in the Middle East, families across the Washington area are learning about the soldiers' daily routines and anxiety of war, their sometimes comic confrontation with the desert and building frustration of not knowing when they are coming home.
When Wendell Stockton, 26, an Army medical specialist based at Fort Meade, wrote to his wife, Marita, in Glen Burnie, Md., he apologized for the sloppy script, explaining: "I'm writing on my gas mask."
As the holidays approach, the mail volume is up to 78 tons a day from the United States to the Persian Gulf and four tons a day from the troops back home. "We expect that to rise substantially for the holidays," said Maj. Mark Rader, training officer for the Military Postal Service Agency in Alexandria.
From the USNS Comfort, several doctors and medical personnel from Bethesda Naval Hospital have written home about the cramped quarters, how some have taped their children's drawings above their dark bunks, the morale that rises with the occasional sock hop and falls at the start of many 16-hour days.
"Good morning," Robert M. Gantt, chief of anesthesia on the Comfort, wrote to his family in Kensington. "I just got back from exercising at the gym and jogging on the flight deck. We plan our days around these things. Jogging on the flight deck must be funny to watch from above: dozens of people running around in circles."
The following is a sampling of excerpts from letters Washington area families have received from relatives in the Middle East:
From Gerald Stevens, 32, of Hagerstown, a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne: Sept. 3
It's almost 1 a.m. and I'm out back keeping a guy company who is on radio watch. We are both writing letters and to our amazement we're enjoying a cool breeze wafting through the air -- that's a first for us since I've been here.
It's small things like a gentle cool breeze that makes our lives more bearable and pleasurable. It's funny how we take a lot of things for granted in the USA. I'm pretty safe and we are landing more and more troops and equipment every day to strengthen our safety in the area. Don't worry about me. Worry about the Iraqis!
I'll close for now, USA all the way! Ger. Sept. 19.
On a typical day I awake at 5:30 a.m. and work in the Brigade Admission shop. I answer the telephone, make photocopies, act as a receptionist, empty the trash and occasionally type a little legal work. I fax messages back to Fort Bragg, help pick up mail and distribute magazines, bring them back to sort and dole them out to our units and support units. From 10 to 11 a.m. I am the latrine guard orderly.
Any of this sound boring?
It can be when you work seven days a week with little time off.
On Thursday, I woke up at 5 a.m. and we departed for downtown. While the other guys were getting 150 pairs of running shoes I was able to walk through the mall -- I bought a Garfield sleep shirt for my daughter's upcoming birthday and an article of clothing for the family member whose name I drew for Christmas. You should see all the silk for good quality and inexpensive prices.
Instead of working that night, though, I was previously selected to attend a show in another town. Employees from the Arab American Oil Company (mostly Americans and Britons) put on a show for us. A country band, a comedian, a barbershop quartet, and vaudeville numbers and girls dancing in body suits -- it was their way of showing appreciation for our presence.
Almost forgot -- on the way back I saw two herds of camels! Now I can say I've been here!
We just got an indication that we will be here for a while: We were issued two more sets of desert fatigues and sleeping bags . . . .
Love to all, Ger.
From Sgt. Jerome Harrington, an Army tank commander from Fort Belvoir. Sept. 1
I found out yesterday morning that this tour would be six months. As I sit here and write, I'm surrounded by hundreds of soldiers under the same roof, the conditions are very cramped and I have been sleeping on the floor for four days . . . . I'm having Bible study in my area nightly to grow stronger.
From Cheryl Shaw, 21, an Arabic linguist working with military intelligence. She was en route to Fort Meade when she was sent instead to Saudi Arabia. Undated
Well, I've been here for a week now. It is just terrible. We're living in Arab tents and there is nothing but sand for miles.
It gets up to about 140 degrees here at noon . . . .
We take showers in these solar-powered wooden stalls that show our heads and ankles. You lose all modesty in about two days or you wouldn't survive. I'm too short to reach the handle that turns on the shower, so I have to climb up the outside first to turn it on and then again to turn if off.
In about two more weeks we'll move from here to 60 miles behind front line and then we'll rotate to the front line to give those people a break. But really, when you think about it, with the equipment that will be used if war does break out, the rear is just as much in danger as the front.
Love, CherylSept. 24
"As of right now, I don't think that I'll be home for Christmas. That's going to take some getting used to. It'll be the first one ever spent away from home. And it definitely won't be any Winter Wonderland here.