WITH U.S. FORCES, SAUDI ARABIA -- On New Year's Day, Army Sgt. 1st Class Mike Carpenter ran the 82nd Airborne Division's "Bragg or Baghdad" 10-mile race in one hour and 16 minutes. He finished deep in the pack of 1,800 runners, more than 22 minutes off the winning time. Winning, however, was not the object of the game.

"Hey, I'm 34 years old, and I'm no runner," said the Stanwood, Wash., native. "I wanted to break one hour, 20 minutes and I wanted to try to set an example for the younger guys."

Carpenter also was pleased that he finished between his closest friends, Sgt. Tony Arguelles, 24, of San Jose, Calif. and Staff Sgt. Jim Jaranowski, 30, of Chicago. The three paratroops had worked and trained alongside each other since the middle of August. They were, they agreed, probably in as good shape as they had ever been in their lives.

"We've lost all the McDonald's, the Strohs and the Miller Lite," Jaranowski said. "So now we lift weights and we run. We've really got an edge."

The United States currently has about 325,000 troops deployed in Operation Desert Shield. Some are recent arrivals, but many, including the 82nd Airborne, have spent months in the desert. With the approach of Jan. 15, when the United Nations has authorized the use of force to expel Iraqi soldiers from occupied Kuwait, these desert-seasoned U.S. troops appear well prepared for war, both physically and psychologically.

There is little illness: the Navy's Fleet Hospital 5 reports that its sick list dropped from an average of 200 patients per day to 120 before recent arrivals lifted the rate back to 200.

There is almost no crime: The U.S. Central Command at year's end reported that the rate of courts-martial per 10,000 troops in Desert Shield was 94 percent less than the rate for U.S. troops worldwide. The Army said the rate of minor disciplinary offenses in Desert Shield had plummeted 66 percent below Army-wide figures.

And finally, Saudi Arabia offers no liquor and no entertainment -- virtually nothing to distract soldiers from the business at hand: getting ready to fight a half-million Iraqi soldiers entrenched in the northern Arabian Desert.

"When we first got here, I would say the Iraqis had the advantage," said Maj. John Little, 36, of Montgomery, Ala., an 82nd Airborne operations officer. "They had the confidence in themselves, in the desert culture, in knowing the desert's ways.

"But that's flipflopped now," Little added. "We're at home here, and I'm sure they're not training the way we are. We're in a groove. I'm no warmonger, but I want it to be over."

He is not alone. For the paratroops of the 82nd Airborne, for three other Army divisions and for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, all of whom arrived in Saudi Arabia in August, the boredom of training and routine in many cases has given way to a mood of expectation and impatience. The 82nd's New Year's race was a case in point: Either go back to Fort Bragg, or go forward to Baghdad.

"It's like practicing for a football game," Jaranowski said. "We've practiced and practiced, and we're ready to play. We know we're going to lose some soldiers, but we knew that up front. We are very tired of waiting."

Commanders acknowledge that tension is rising among the troops, but say this has not translated into excessive nervousness or psychological problems.

"The one thing that is sort of surprising is that we're less busy than I thought we'd be," said Navy Cmdr. Bill McDaniel, 38, Fleet Hospital 5's senior staff psychiatrist. "We're less busy than we would have been with this population in the States."

McDaniel said the rates of serious psychiatric disorder -- schizophrenia, mania and depression leading to panic -- remain about the same in Desert Shield as they would in any cross section of the U.S. population. What is surprising, he added, is the low incidence of clinical depression and debilitating stress.

There are, he said, two main reasons for the soldiers' relative mental health: the social cohesion and mutual support that troops in the field have achieved after five months of roughing it in the desert, and the lack of liquor.

"You can't get alcohol in Saudi Arabia, so there are none of the associated problems -- getting in fights, getting hurt, complicating your life," McDaniel said. "Almost invariably our patients here are worried about problems back home -- the soldiers have had to sort out their feelings."

McDaniel said troops are relying on their friends to help them get through the bad spots: "Deployed forces have more of a sense of mission and a sense of being a team." The support structure, he added, absorbs individual misgivings and malaise.

"The 82nd is a very competitive unit, but in something like this, it's like a big family," said Sgt. Arguelles. "You ask people to do things and it's done. Everybody does for each other."

Desert Shield commanders have promoted unit cohesion, not only for its psychological benefits, but also to help keep people out of trouble: "There's no new guys in town, everybody came with his friends," said Marine Staff Judge Advocate Col. M.L. Haiman, the top legal officer in Desert Shield's Marine command. "There's no time for screwing around, and the units themselves wouldn't stand for anybody on the end of the spear that was a screw-up."

Haiman said he did not have exact figures, but "it would be safe to say" disciplinary problems among Desert Shield Marines are "about 50 percent of what they'd be in the States."

The Army's figures are "phenomenal," according to the Central Command's provost marshal, Col. Douglas Cobb, Desert Shield's top military policeman: "By any comparison -- crimes against persons, against property, drug-related, alcohol-related -- there is much, much less of a problem here than anywhere in the United States."

Cobb, like the Marines' Haiman, placed the lion's share of the credit on today's serviceman, "the best soldier you ever saw," but both acknowledged that the lack of liquor has an important effect on behavior.

Navy Capt. Richard Mayo, commanding officer of Fleet Hospital 5, said his doctors saw a significant number of dysentery cases in August when the first Desert Shield divisions arrived. At the same time there was a relatively high incidence of bronchial problems caused by the dry, dusty air.

"But the cases decreased," Mayo said. "We had less problems of all kinds." New arrivals have brought the caseload back up, "but the rate for all the people we have here is still low." The only constant in health care, Mayo said, is a significant number of sprains, broken bones and dislocations -- sports injuries.