Across Army Camps,

'Clock's Still Ticking'

Saturday morning in this rude encampment of 6,000 combat troops begins with the distribution of two index cards to be tucked into every soldier's helmet. Someday, perhaps very soon, the cards will be used to track the dead and wounded.

Form 1156, the "casualty feeder report," includes boxes to be checked for any soldier killed, wounded, missing or captured. "Body recovered? Yes. No." "Body identified? Yes. No."

Form 1155, "witness statement on individual," is personal, even poignant. "Was he married?" "Did he have any children?" "Nickname." "Other identifying marks, such as tattoos or birthmarks."

This is the far edge of the American empire, three square miles of nothing, flat as a billiard table and enclosed with concertina wire, a 10-foot sand berm, and wooden guard towers. Iraq lies 25 miles to the west. To the north and south lie a constellation of similarly desolate Army camps: New York, Virginia, Pennsylvania.

Someone with a corrupted sense of humor has named this seared wasteland after the Garden State, although the nearest tree is a scraggly Joshua in the 3rd Infantry Division sector several miles to the east.

At Camp New Jersey, the headquarters and 3rd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division are squatters in a vast tent city, waiting for the war that many expect to come this week.

They are among 250,000 U.S. and British troops poised on the edge of a war. Today, Washington Post reporters living with troops in the field in Kuwait and aboard ship provided portraits of a military in waiting, a mix of anxiety, training, routine, boredom and anticipation.

At Camp New Jersey, the pace, already brisk, has become frenetic in recent days. Around the clock, fleets of trucks from the Kuwait City port haul in JP-8 fuel, Meals Ready to Eat, .50-caliber machine guns and TOW missile launchers. M-1A2 Abrams tanks and Abrams fighting vehicles roll across the desert in battle drills beyond the berm.

British troops, balaclavas at their throats and goggles on their helmets, race in their Land Rovers toward a firing range at nearby Udairi.

Apache and Kiowa attack helicopters, rehearsing their refueling techniques, skitter across the cloudless sky before swooping to earth in great billowing dust clouds.

Pilots have quickly learned to cruise 75 to 100 feet above the desert, high enough to avoid kicking up gratuitous dust but low enough so that the barren ground does not become as featureless as the sea.

More than half the soldiers in the 3rd Brigade, known as the Rakkasans, are veterans from Afghanistan, lean young troops who grow more bronzed every day. Many have indelibly inked their Social Security numbers and blood types across their boot cuffs; helicopter crashes tend to dismember. "These guys are ready," says the brigade sergeant major, Iniasolua Savusa. "They have a certain look in their eyes."

Today the rifle companies are in constant motion: practicing escort duty for northbound convoys; rehearsing how to enter a building and clear a room, using a roofless, plywood mockup; painting recognition symbols on their vehicles. At a commander's meeting, Savusa warns about snakes, rodents and depression.

"Lot of soldiers are getting dear Johns and dear Jane letters, and they're going to be out there sitting and thinking about it," he says. The brigade's sergeants, he adds, need to make certain "they don't go and do something stupid."

Division headquarters was supposed to move into a vast, customized tent with stadium seating, but the structure somehow was stowed on a later ship. A backup tent, fortuitously packed, has been erected to good effect.

Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the 101st commander, sits in the front row with his senior officers, while several dozen staff officers sit at three rows of tables behind him.

At the nightly Battle Update Briefing, four large screens display color-coded slides showing the readiness of all units in the division, in categories ranging from shooting and mobility to training and logistics.

Although the division's equipment only began arriving 10 days ago, the slides have steadily evolved: from black for unready, to red, then yellow, and green.

"The clock's still ticking," Petraeus tells his officers at the end of the meeting. "I don't know whether it's ticking louder or not. . . . We've just got to keep pressing forward. That's why, when people say something will be done tomorrow, I ask why it can't be done tonight."

-- Rick Atkinson

Marines Suit Up

In Heavy, Hot Gear

The vacuum-sealed package makes a little "poof" sound when a switchblade pierces it and air rushes inside.

First out are the trousers. They slip on easily enough, loose and baggy, with suspenders that make the wearer look like a farmer in camouflage overalls. It's the top that's the killer. It doesn't feel so bad at first, just a little heavy. That impression melts after a few hours in the desert sun.

The Marines here at their main headquarters and elsewhere in Kuwait open their pouches today and for the first time try on the special protective gear they would wear into war. Lined with a carbon-based layer, the suits are designed to keep out VX or mustard gas or anthrax. They also have the unfortunate effect of keeping out fresh air.

For four hours today, the Marines at Camp Commando keep their suits on -- though not their gas masks -- to get used to the bulk and the heat. They wear them to the chow tent for lunch, to the official opening of the new PX, to the weekly bazaar where Kuwaitis hawk Persian rugs and other overpriced non-Kuwaiti wares.

If they cross the border into Iraq, the Marines will be in these suits 24 hours a day no matter how hot it gets, putting on their masks if they enter particularly dangerous zones. Today the temperature was in the 80s. Within weeks it could hit 100 degrees.

Master Gunnery Sgt. James Forward points to the suit and says, "That's going to add 10 degrees to the ambient temperature." But he adds, "I'm not overly worried if they're in the suit. I'm worried if they don't have their suits on."

Forward is the nuclear-biological-chemical (NBC) weapon defense chief for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, and is responsible for keeping 60,000 men and women safe from weapons of mass destruction. It might be a curious job for a man who developed asthma last year and has trouble breathing even clean air, but after nearly three decades in the Marines, the 44-year-old from Las Vegas sees this as the challenge of his life.

Dubbed "MOPP suits," for "Mission Oriented Protective Posture," the garments cost $221 and once removed from the airtight pouches last 120 days if not worn. When worn regularly, they last 45 days. In a contaminated environment, they are thought to be good for 24 hours.

When the Marines finally rip into the packages this morning they have a bit of a surprise -- many of the suits are woodland green, not desert khaki.

Forward says the Marines who most need camouflage, such as reconnaissance scouts, will get the khaki-colored. But today it is a matter of chance. Forward's is desert colored. When he walks into the daily briefing with the general and his commanders, he's chagrined to discover all the top brass in green, not khaki.

-- Peter Baker

Beating Boredom

With Scrap Wood

They have spent a month now stuck at this shabby base called Al Shahid. There are only so many games of Hearts they can play.

Which is why, this morning, U.S. Army pilots Jim Gallagher and Chad Erickson are standing in the sand near their barracks, pondering the possibilities of a busted-up wooden crate.

"Home entertainment center," declares Gallagher, 30, a chief warrant officer 2, gazing at the box, which once held a CH-46 Chinook helicopter cargo hook.

"You want to make a nightstand too?" asks Erickson, 38, a chief warrant officer 3.

Thus begins the Saturday odyssey of Gallagher and Erickson, Medivac pilots from the 82nd Medical Company who are temporarily housed with hundreds of other U.S. soldiers at this Kuwaiti base. Today is their day off, a rest from practice flights in their UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters in preparation for war with Iraq.

Like so many soldiers here, Gallagher and Erickson are tired of waiting for the war, tired of living in a dirty, crowded 10-man room with no privacy and little entertainment and nowhere to go. They are itching to get into Iraq -- everyone thinks it will be a quick fight -- and get back to their families at Fort Riley, Kan.

Building a home entertainment center will allow them to set up their laptop and play DVDs. And it will have another effect, Gallagher predicts with Army humor: As soon as the barracks are a little more comfortable, "They'll say, 'Move out!' " Erickson, a muscular farmer's son from Kindred, N.D., squats down and measures the boards with a cot peg. Like Gallagher, he wears a gray Army T-shirt and black shorts. Pouches with gas masks dangle from their waists.

"It's too wide, dude," says Gallagher, of Pocono, Pa.

They select the best of the wood and carry it to a shady spot.

"Now we need some tools," says Erickson.

The Army may fight on a digital battlefield, with satellite- and laser-guided weapons. But out here in the field, old-fashioned ingenuity is still required. The men discover some splintered 2x4 planks in the dirt. The wood is damp and hard to cut. The saw they have scrounged up is so rusted the blade resembles mottled tangerine skin.

Gallagher stands on the wood while Erickson saws. Eventually, they commandeer a hammer from the motor pool. They yank the rusty nails from the crate and re-use them. The home entertainment center is taking shape: a rough horizontal board atop two vertical ones. Erickson saws a piece of particle board for a second shelf.

As he finishes, a group of soldiers look down from an open stairwell in the barracks. "By the way, we're leaving tomorrow!" one calls jokingly.

Gallagher and Erickson grin. If only they were that lucky.

-- Mary Beth Sheridan

Replenishment at Sea:

Groceries for 5,655

They call an aircraft carrier a floating city. Today, the city is going shopping.

In choreography that U.S. Navy vessels have been repeating since the 1920s, the fast combat support ship USS Camden pulls alongside the USS Lincoln and unloads enough food and jet fuel to keep the Lincoln's 5,655 crew members and 80 aircraft operating comfortably for a week.

It is a three-hour exercise called replenishment at sea: the Camden delivers pallets of everything from 150 cases of Farm Rich French Toast to 7,000 pounds of ground beef while the Lincoln exchanges trash barrels of used oils and degreasers and boxes of compacted plastic.

"It's good to get supplies, I guess, but it's bad because it's a sign we're staying here," says Airman Lacey Camper, 20, of Melville, Pa., as crates of assorted Kellogg's cereals and cans of Mother's Maid Blueberry Pie Filling are stacked around her in one of the Lincoln's hangar bays.

The transfer starts when the Camden sails alongside the Lincoln and the two gray ships travel a parallel course roughly 200 feet apart at a speed of about 15 knots. The blue-green sea rushes between them, white foam spraying off their hulls.

To connect the ships, a cable is blasted across the water to the deck of the Camden from an M-14 rifle shot by Airman Edwin Washington, 20, who says he never misses. A telephone line allows the crews to communicate. Wires and lines are strung between steel girders on both ships called sliding padeyes. The Camden's sliding padeye has electric motors that move wires like a clothesline. Packages slide from the Camden to the Lincoln in less than a minute.

Four heavy rubber hoses are also draped from the Camden into the Lincoln's fuel storage tanks, transferring 1.6 million gallons of JP-5 jet fuel, about half the carrier's capacity. Two Boeing Sea Knight helicopters ferry pallets and boxes from the Camden to the Lincoln's flight deck, making the trip in 10 seconds. The helicopters make dozens and dozens of these trips.

In the Lincoln's hangar bay, crews begin unpacking. Yellow diesel forklifts move some pallets. Boxes of food run on a vertical conveyor to food storage rooms several decks below.

When the last of the wooden crates and jet parts have been transferred and the wires and cables are released and retracted, the Beatles' "Hard Day's Night" blasts through the carrier's speakers.

The Camden recedes to the horizon and the Lincoln, laden with frozen breaded Cajun catfish and Jubilee Rich N Creamy Hot Chocolate Fudge Topping, powers ahead.

-- Lyndsey Layton

Trucking in Sand?

It's 'Force Protection'

The unavoidable irony hits the soldiers like a shovel to the forehead: With the desert under their boots, they watch as the Army brings truckloads of sand through the camp's gates in the morning, creating artificial dunes that shrink steadily as the day drags on.

The last of the incoming truckloads -- about 40 tons of Kuwait's most plentiful natural resource -- spills from the trucks into imprecise pyramids, sitting untouched for no more than 40 seconds before soldiers start digging in.

"Are they making us fill these things just to give us something to do, or what?" asks Pfc. Justin Sloan, a parachute rigger with the 82nd Airborne Division, with an empty sandbag at his feet.

"Force protection," answers Sgt. Bradford Ashby. "It's all about force protection."

The commanders of this camp set a deadline of this weekend for fortifying the base's 170 or so bunkers. That means universal sandbag duty. In these days of waiting, imminent deadlines also mean speculation: Either the heightened pace of sandbagging is an artificial exercise to prevent complacency, some theorize, or these bags are filling up with a weighty portent that crunch time is near.

"If I die," says a voice from the far side of the pile, "I want to be buried in this sand pile."

Another voice volleys back: "You don't have to die to be buried in this."

In the original plans for camp operations, sandbag duty was supposed to fall on local contractors. It didn't work out. The hired diggers were dismissed when it became clear their timetable didn't correspond to the Army's, says Sgt. Maj. Kenneth Taylor, the camp's installation manager who is routinely addressed as "The Mayor."

"I think the work was a lot more intense than they anticipated," Taylor says. "We couldn't sit back and wait for them."

The pace of digging after the deadline was announced created a moonscape near the front of the camp, with craters that could swallow nighttime wanderers relying mostly on moonlight to guide their way. By the end of the day, just before the sun is replaced by a lopsided moon, a company of parachute riggers finishes loading their fifth palette of sandbags onto a Caterpillar lift. Some stretch their backs, and fall into verbal sparring -- teasing insults, harmless roughhousing, contagious laughter.

"Less talk," says Spc. Bill Freeman from the peak of the pile, "and more work."

Another voice counters from the adjacent peak:

"Yeah, there's still sand in this desert. Our mission is to get rid of it all in the next 20 minutes."

-- Monte Reel

U.S. Army pilots Chad Erickson, left, and Jim Gallagher try to beat the boredom by turning scraps of wood into a home entertainment center.Pallets of food and supplies slide from the USS Camden to the USS Abraham Lincoln while helicopters prepare to ferry supplies to the carrier's deck.