When the Air Force goes to live in the field, it goes first class, in what one wag described as "designer tents."
The 650 tents, made of a fashionable desert tan fabric, come with individual electric-powered heat pumps that provide air conditioning in the summer and heat in the winter. Round fabric tubes about two feet in diameter run down the ridge pole of each tent, with little ports that can be opened and closed with velcro fasteners to adjust the air flow to individual bunks.
"This is a lot more than I expected," said Airman 1st Class Edward Garey, 22, of Houston. "I thought we would be living in the shelter halves and sleeping on the ground in sleeping bags.
Each tent looks like it has a double top, separated by about an eight-inch gap. "The top piece is called the fly, and this feature provides a layer of air that insulates to keep the heat out in the summer, and to keep heat from escaping in the winter," explained Master Sgt. Randy Robinson, 37, of Moline, Ill.
A canvas liner on the inside provides another layer of insulating air. In effect, the 32-by-20-foot tents are double-walled on the side and constructed like a triple-pane storm window on top.
The tents -- officially known as Environmental Control Units -- come equipped with plastic flooring and generator-driven electric lights.
"We're sleeping on wooden-frame beds from Germany, mattresses from Malaysia, blankets from South Korea and Soviet sheets," said Lt. Col. Al Nacke, 39, of Seattle, an F-15 pilot. "The Soviet sheets shrink about 25 percent after the first washing."
One of the biggest problems facing U.S. Army combat engineers was how to quickly build roads in the desert. Trucks can't be driven across the desert sand; even when the surface is hard, constant truck traffic would soon churn the sand into a soft, dry quagmire.
But under the sand, Army engineers found a clay-like soil substance called marl. They dug it out, spread it, dampened it and rolled it hard. It made hard-surfaced roads they were proud of and even bragged about.
Then something unexpected happened: It rained. Two days of downpour turned the marl into a mushy, slippery, gooey mess that became nonnegotiable. It couldn't be re-rolled -- it stuck to the rollers like paste. Trucks had to bypass or drive alongside the marl roads just to get through.
At week's end, the engineers still hadn't found a solution, but the old roads were being abandoned as troops moved closer to the front. What will they use for new roads? "We'll make that decision when we get there," one engineer said.
Handy Plastic Bottles
If the camel is the symbol of Saudi Arabian nomads in the desert, the ubiquitous symbol of the U.S. soldier in the desert is the plastic water bottle.
No American camp, outpost, guard station or vehicle goes without these clear plastic 1.5-liter bottles, decorated with an oasis-scene label and the name of their producer, either Najran or Taiba. A company-sized unit of 100 to 150 soldiers will have hundreds of boxes of bottles stacked near the mess tent, and empty bottles litter the landscape where U.S. troops have passed.
The soldiers drink the water straight, or pour Kool-Aid or iced-tea mix into them. When a unit is on the move, the troops use the bottled water to wash themselves as well as their clothes. And although it's discouraged, soldiers use empty bottles with snap-on tops as chamber pots to avoid a long walk at night to the latrine.
"You have to be careful," said one soldier, eying a water bottle in his tent containing yellow-brown liquid. "I use that iced-tea mix and you don't want to grab the wrong one."