WITH U.S. TROOPS, SAUDI ARABIA, NOV. 11 -- Live! From the Camel's Rear Nightclub in the sands of Saudi Arabia! It's F-r-i-e-d Brains!
They're rude, crude and lewd, but Pete and Paul know how to take a military man's mind off the sand, flies and homesickness of desert life. From their packing-crate stage under a camouflage net, the two hospital corpsmen with the shaved heads croon their own rowdy versions of pop tunes over the tent tops of their isolated desert base camp. An innocent ode such as "Runaround Sue" is transformed into a tale of sin and its wages: "Gonorrhea Sue."
For better or worse, Fried Brains isn't likely to be folding up its tent anytime soon. It appears that these troops will have to entertain themselves American-style in the barren desert for at least several more months, and maintaining morale could be a growing problem.
Last week's announcement by President Bush that about 200,000 new troops will be deployed in the region -- and the dropping of plans to send some troops home and rotate fresh ones to the desert -- have dampened the mood of many military men and women assigned here. The announcements came just as cooler temperatures and rumors of imminent rotations were beginning to make desert life a little more bearable.
"It's very sobering," said Air Force Capt. Richard Walberg, 31, an operations officer for the airlift control team charged with moving troops and equipment through the main transport airfield in the Eastern Province. "We watch a lot of the people who come in here and go up to the front lines. If we go to war, people are going to die. . . . It's very scary."
That fear, bolstered by warnings this weekend from commanding generals that troops who have been in a defensive posture should prepare for the possibility of an attack on Iraqi forces, is likely to spur greater efforts to find moments of refuge from the increasing daily tensions. After a day of hauling "honey pots" of human waste from latrines, filling sandbags and laboring over other tedious tasks, many soldiers here are eager for a card game, a soda and the late-night comedy team at the Camel's Rear -- the sanitized version of the moniker given to the spot in the center of camp where dozens of soldiers squeeze into a small tent and howl along with Pete and Paul.
Those who prefer can continue down the narrow path that winds through the sandbag walls of the camp to one of the twice-weekly Bible study sessions, where songs with more subdued verses mingle in the chilly night air with laughter from the improvised night-club act.
Just outside the residential tent area, a white parachute has been draped over one end of the giant chow tent, and "Moon Over Parador" plays to a full house.
The couch-potato generation quickly discovered that it does not have to go to war without televisions and videocassette recorders. Surgeons at one forward-based medical unit took up a collection and had a doctor's wife mail them a TV and VCR. Enlisted troops at other tent camps scraped together donations and purchased sets at local stores. The televisions can be plugged into the portable generators found in all base camps.
But the realities of Operation Desert Shield, the name given to the deployment of U.S. troops that followed Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait, are impinging on such signs of normalcy.
Lt. Col. Doug Cole, 41, commander of the airlift team from McGuire Air Force Base, New Jersey, said he was on the first plane that touched down in Saudi Arabia on the afternoon of Aug. 8. He immediately began setting up the operations that would process hundreds of thousands of troops and millions of tons of equipment, he recalled.
"It's been an emotional roller coaster," said Cole, adding that the unit's psychiatrist has been "quite busy the last couple of days" in the wake of the announcements about increased troop levels and postponed rotations.
Cole said some members of the advance teams that arrived with him had 30 minutes' notice to pack their bags, leaving a trail of financial, family and emotional problems. Many troops are attempting to cope long-distance with divorces, wives who have become so distraught that they are seeking psychiatric help and babies who may not remember their military parent when he or she returns home. Even unmarried troops are wrestling with problems at home, Cole said.
The all-volunteer military includes many young men and women who were lured by promises of educational benefits and a chance to "be all you can be" and escape economic dead-ends in small home towns.
"They thought it looked pretty good to join up, go on a couple of exercises and get out," said Cole, who has spent more than 18 years in the Air Force. "They find themselves here for a year or more sucking dust and say, 'This is not what I planned for.' It's a rude awakening for everybody."
Although Pentagon policies on rotation have distressed some troops, the signal that the U.S. military is preparing for offensive operations has diminished much of the uncertainty that has been identified by many as the biggest obstacle to good morale.
Maj. Gen. Robert M. Johnston, the U.S. Central Command chief of staff, told a group of Marines here on Saturday that "we may indeed have to concern ourselves with an offensive option" against Iraq.
"Now maybe we can do something besides sit here and get sandblasted," said Lt. Robert Sayre, who was on a desert training maneuver with his company of the 82nd Airborne Division this weekend when he first heard that Bush had ordered an additional 200,000 troops to the Middle East.
But even as more combat troops move into their front-line positions and as world policy makers continue to postpone military action in hopes that an economic embargo will force Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait, the U.S. military is turning increasing attention to providing diversions for troops. Because U.S. leaders are loath to offend their conservative Islamic hosts, the American troops have little opportunity for off-base socializing.
One Saudi organization gave the military the use of a beachfront country club five days a week, but only about 700 troops a day can be funneled through the facility. With about 170,000 troops already in the Eastern Province alone, it would take eight months for all of them to have their one day of hot dogs, swimming and boating.
That has left most military units to come up with their own miniature versions of R&R. Few joint operational exercises have been held with other nations' forces, but U.S. troops have waged numerous international sports contests. The 82nd Airborne scheduled a soccer game with a Saudi civilian team and a rugby match with British soldiers.
Dozens of base camps have created crude gymnasiums. Mechanics at a Marine desert supply depot found the perfect use for the snow chains that came with each of their 10-ton trucks: They poured them into canvas bags, tied them to the ends of a pipe and, voila, instant barbells.
Some Air Force pilots at an A-10 bomber base made the best of a rough existence by building elaborate decks of scavenged lumber, complete with plastic-lined hot tubs in the sand.
Saudi entrepreneurs have been quick to meet some desires of U.S. troops -- and turn a healthy profit. Desert "convenience stores" have sprouted outside several large base camps.
Down at "Crazy Abdul's" on the fringe of a Marine aviation base, troops can find the junk food of their choice, ranging from soft drinks to potato chips. While American health officials have given the shopkeeper clearance to cook food in his wooden roadside stand, he makes daily runs into a nearby town to pick up tubs of Kentucky Fried Chicken for resale to the troops.
Troops still say, however, there remains no better morale booster than mail from home. Hospital corpsman Robert Barrientos keeps the calf pocket of his combat fatigues stuffed with mail from home. "Anytime during the day that I get depressed, I reread a few of these and it really brings you up," he said.