William E. "Bill" Cole, a 25-year-old artillery lieutenant with the 82nd Airborne Division, wrote to his father from Saudi Arabia in November. His unit had just completed a 10-day field exercise and, although his own performance had been graded "outstanding," there were some problems.

For one thing, his men were having difficulty shooting howitzers in the Saudi sand, which shifted after the gun's powerful blasts. And they were having trouble with sledgehammers used to stake down weapons; the wooden handles kept breaking.

"The ones that we brought from the states broke within a few weeks. The handles that they buy over here are even worse and break after one or two days. . . . Although that may sound like a minor problem, it is not," Cole wrote.

His battery had broken 18 handles in the exercise. They had tried to reinforce the handles. "Nothing works. Many break on the first blow," Cole wrote. He said that soldiers would cut off the broken part and put the head back on the remaining handle. But after doing this three or four times, they were swinging 18-inch sledgehammers. "Under different circumstances it might be funny," Cole wrote.

There was more: Their vehicles got stuck when they were loaded down with ammunition or towing a howitzer. "We try to avoid getting bogged down by driving very fast over the sand. While this cuts down on the number of stuck trucks, it is very dangerous, especially at night," he said.

Cole told his dad that the dusty sand "gets into everything." In a practice helicopter raid, "the sand blasting we took from the rotor wash hurt like hell." His rifle was so covered "with dusty sand I could barely cycle the bolt."

Cole's father, Hubert, who worked at the Army Test and Evaluation Command at Maryland's Aberdeen Proving Ground, immediately grasped the significance of his son's letter. He passed it to a superior, whose son had been a West Point classmate of Bill Cole's. Then it went to Maj. Gen. George H. Akin, commanding general of the Proving Ground.

Said Akin: "I read it and I said, 'Doggone it, we can fix these things.' " Akin mentioned the problems to his superiors at the Pentagon, and also to William Tuttle, a four-star general who heads the Army Materiel Command.

The letter was bucked down the line. Within days, a load of sledgehammers with fiberglass handles was on its way to the gulf, and wider-tread tires for the sand soon followed.

The Army's response system "may work in strange ways, but it worked," Akin said last week.