WITH U.S. FORCES IN NORTHERN SAUDI ARABIA -- Emilio Zuniga's do-it-yourself laundromat opens at 7:15 a.m. Attorney Robert Leas draws up wills, his shingle posted outside his temporary home, which doubles as an office. And mechanic Robert Lamb complains over the blare of rock music that he can't complete a job because he's still waiting for spare parts.
Road accidents are a big killer, video games and junk food are hot items, and working women are struggling with clashing emotions about pursuing new-found opportunities in their profession while leaving their children at home.
It sounds like a slice of life in Anytown USA, but this is a giant Marine logistical supply base in the middle of the Saudi Arabian desert. With its airstrip, criss-crossing dirt roads and hundreds of tents erected around huge steel shipment containers, this camp looks like an enormous construction project.
The mission of the base, known as the 2nd Forward Service Support Group, is to bring to front-line troops on the battlefield food, fuel, transportation, communications, medical aid, newspapers, ammunition, rockets, cannons, water, forklifts, bulldozers, spare parts and just about anything else a fighting force needs to function.
The several thousand Marines working here, including more than 170 women, are dedicated to logistics and supply, as are two-thirds of U.S. Marine Corps personnel here in the gulf. A two-week stay at the camp showed how these Marines have faced their assignment in a foreign land by turning their surroundings into a little piece of Americana.
On display here are examples of the American compulsion to make the complicated simple, the strange familiar. For example, Cpl. Michael Urango, a military policeman, refers to all of the Iraqi POWs under his charge by the name of a rock 'n roll idol.
"I call 'em all 'Elvis.' That's our name for 'em," said Urango, who lives at this base and works at another camp down the road where POWs are held. The sobriquet arose, he said, after he and his friends noticed that truck drivers in Saudi Arabia, many of whom are expatriate workers from India and Pakistan, "all had their hair slicked back like Elvis."
As to why Urango is thousands of miles from home, he answers simply: "We understand Saddam's doing some bad things," he said, referring to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. "Nobody can treat people like that and get away with it."
As they settle into their roles as members of Operation Desert Storm, many of these Marines find themselves performing familiar work; there are at this camp computer specialists, chaplains, truck drivers, doctors and cops, all doing the jobs they do back home.
Meanwhile, the PX rakes in about $20,000 a day selling junk food and soda. A voice on the phone is still better than a letter, so the wait outside the new AT&T satellite phone tent is three hours long. And moments of privacy are more often than not spent talking to a cassette tape to send to a loved one, playing portable video games, or listening to music on a Walkman.
One of the scourges of modern America is also claiming lives here -- traffic accidents. Officials say more U.S. servicemen have died in road accidents since troops were first deployed in August than in combat, which began last month. The cause of the accidents is often blinding swirls of desert dust, which are whipped up by convoys of supply trucks, tanks and armored personnel carriers headed north.
As all American towns do, this camp has its share of physical fitness freaks, who run early each morning when nearly everyone else is shivering from the bone-piercing cold. They are led by Capt. Rick Johnson, 34, who was raised near Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium and is, as he puts it, "a fine, shining example of what Washington can do when it's feeling good about itself."
What Supervisor Staff Sgt. Emilio Zuniga does here is run a laundry, and he displays an instinct for self-protection when he discusses it. Asked why it is a do-it-yourself operation, the 29-year-old San Bernardino, Calif., native replied: "I don't want my people to be responsible if something gets lost."
The generation of Operation Desert Storm seems to have more in common with its counterparts of the '40s and '50s than the warriors of Vietnam. They reflect, rather than reject, the sentiments of their Pentagon commanders and have decided opinions about why they are here, as a sampling of helmet graffiti shows: "It's Not About Oil!" and "Death to Saddam!"
Though blacks and whites tend to eat in separate groups at the outdoor mess tables, there is little evidence here of the racial tension that exists in the United States. The men, both black and white, under the command of Capt. Johnson, who is black, clearly like him and one soldier said Johnson is popular because "he never asks his men to do what he doesn't do."
The prevailing mood among the troops at the camp is one of eagerness to get the job done right away and go home. Success in ousting the Iraqi troops from Kuwait is assumed; as one medical worker expressed it in his "Thought for the Week" on a field hospital bulletin board: "Hard Rock Cafe, Kuwait City, Opening Soon."
Lt. Col. Robert Leas, an attorney who runs the Marines' Office of Staff Judge Advocate, talks with many young Marines, who were nurtured on the culture of instant gratification, when they drop in to draw up their wills. "They're anxious to get it over with," said the Texas native. "You tell them three weeks is not a long war. Maybe by Israeli standards, but not U.S. standards."
Leas, whose office is also responsible for prosecuting criminal cases, reports that the camp population is a law-abiding group. Only one larceny, the theft of a pistol, has been reported, and a Marine brig built back in the Saudi town of Jubail has yet to have a prisoner, he said.
Sgt. Bruce Richardson, 44, said he has had "only a couple" of discipline problems with people "showing disrespect." Otherwise, he said the men and women of his communications company cause him little irritation.
He does hear quite a few complaints, though. "I think that it's hard for these young Marines, being in this environment. They think it's harsh," said Richardson, who spent 1967-68 in an infantry company in Vietnam. "This is paradise to me. Don't take incoming. Doesn't rain. Get two hot chows a day. What more do you want? We didn't have luxuries like this."
About the only appliance missing here is television. Yet this camp seems surrounded by one big TV screen on which the combat of Operation Desert Storm is near enough to hear and even see, but not yet close enough to cause immediate harm.
When U.S. B-52s drop their deadly payload on Iraqi troops across the border, the rumble of the explosives echoes into camp. And at night, the allied jet bombers streaking north look like giant fireflies glowing in the inky sky. On the ground, round-the-clock convoys of buses and trucks push supplies and U.S. troops further into the desert.
This base is commanded by Chuck C. Krulak, an effervescent brigadier general who operates from an underground bunker that looks like a set from a World War II movie. A dark, sloping tunnel leads down from the desert surface into cramped quarters lit by naked light bulbs. The staff attends daily briefings seated on folding chairs that face a map on the wall.
Krulak shows up regularly in almost every part of camp, one day dishing out food in the mess tent, another doing a card trick in the radio room and offering 24 hours off to anyone who can show him how he did it. Someone did -- and got the one-day vacation.
The general, who served two tours as an infantryman in Vietnam, is enthusiastic about his Marines: "Go out and talk to them. They will blow your mind. I have one guy who was pulled out of the seminary to be here."
But Krulak makes clear he is running a military installation. Word went out one day that officers will now be saluted, a practice that Marines dropped in Vietnam. And a makeshift disco, where some Marines released tension by dancing the newly created "Gas Mask," was ordered closed after opening night. Krulak reportedly feared that front-line Marines reading of the disco in the local newspaper might think their supply troops were not taking the war effort seriously.
Cpl. Christina Gervasi had another Marine rule -- never misplace your rifle -- engraved on her mind. The time she did forget it, Richardson ordered her to fill 1,000 bags with sand as punishment. "This is like a cardinal sin here," the Bellmore, N.Y., native said as she shoveled sand. "You don't walk around without your equipment. It's known throughout the camp that I'm doing this and the reason I'm doing this. I'll never forget my rifle again."
Gervasi is one of the 172 women assigned to this vast supply camp, most of them junior enlisted or activated reservists. They helped build the camp from scratch, setting up radio antennas, digging bunkers, filling sandbags, stacking sandbags, restacking sandbags, repairing computers, driving trucks, cooking, running communications.
For 41-year-old Lt. Col. Ruthann Poole of Newport News, Va., leaving behind her 4-year-old daughter was "probably the hardest thing for me. . . . Someday she'll understand. She thinks Mommy's gone to the field. That's all I told her. I didn't tell her anything about a war."
In fact, many Marines do a great deal of talking about their family back home. For every dogtag, there are several more well-worn snapshots of children, parents, boyfriends and girlfriends pocketed close to the hearts of the troops here.
Like many Desert Storm outposts, this Marine supply base is shifting its position in the desert, moving closer to the border. The Marines are soon likely to be much closer to the sights and sounds of war than they have been up to now.
"I think all of us are a bit apprehensive," said Maj. Ginger Jacocks, 40, of Zachary, La., who serves as Krulak's intelligence officer. "The majority of the people out here are facing combat for the first time."
Not much is said about this yet, but it is clearly on people's minds.
At a religious service held last Sunday at the field hospital, a congregation of blacks and whites listened to gospel and traditional white Protestant hymns. The chaplain spoke of spiritual "mountain tops" and "valleys" ahead. An officer took off his glasses and wiped his eyes with a handkerchief.
Only once did the troops disrupt the sermon -- when the chaplain spoke of "one of the best mountain tops you are ever going to experience. And that's the day when a Boeing 747 lands in Jubail and they tell you to get on board. And it takes you home! Now that will be a mountain-top experience!"
"Amens" and "Yeahs" filled the tent.