SAUDI ARABIA -- Soldiers at the front have the same complaint as soldiers have had for centuries: lousy chow. If they're lucky, they get one hot meal a day. Their staple is the "MRE," the pre-packaged Meals Ready to Eat, which has a shelf life of five years and flavor to match. The soldiers call the MRE "meals rejected by Ethiopians."
Statisticians told us they have served more than 88 million meals since August. When top military commanders hear complaints, they respond like a mother telling her children to eat their vegetables: starving Iraqi soldiers would crawl across the border for the privilege of eating an MRE.
Thirsty American soldiers might do some crawling themselves for a beer to wash down their MREs, but there is no alcohol to be found among the troops. The PX, or Post Exchange, near here was mobbed when word got out of a shipment of non-alcoholic beer called "Sharps" made by the Miller Brewing Co.
Sgt. Philip Casias, 27, of Rocky Ford, Colo., is particularly fond of the stuff. He bought four cases and finished them off with another friend in just a few hours. "Whoa, we had to go to the bathroom a lot," Casias said.
That's a high price to pay for the indulgence. Bathrooms at the front are no more than plywood and wire outhouses that offer no privacy from the waist up. And a shower may be a buddy dumping a bucket of water on you.
The biggest highlight of the day, if it comes at all, is mail call. The mail to and from the front moves sluggishly. One official told us some 300 tons of mail arrive every day and space on transport planes headed for the front is needed for ammunition and other basics.
Days off are unheard of. There is no place to go and not much to spend money on here. While they wait to move, the most common activity for the soldiers is digging foxholes. The first step is to dig a shallow hole called a "hasty" or a "run and dive." The more elaborate holes become homes, like the hootch built by one squad of the 82nd Airborne Division with 800 sandbags layered four deep.
Jim Southerly of Delta Co., 2nd Battalion, the 325th Infantry Regiment, explained that this is no busy work. "In a case like this, every soldier takes the shovel in hand with a purpose. I dig this damn hole so myself and everybody around me will survive. Every day you dig a little deeper. Every day you make it harder to penetrate."
An ideal foxhole is dug to the depth of the armpit of the tallest person in it. It takes about 150 sandbags per infantryman to protect from indirect artillery and mortar fire.
Sand is something there is no shortage of here. It gets into everything, sleeping bags, toothbrushes and food.
Army combat engineers know all about the sand. They thought they had the traction problem licked a few weeks ago. Army engineers dug down and found a clay-like soil called "marl," which hardened nicely when dampened and rolled. So, according to one pool report, they built roads out of marl, which worked fine until an unusually rainy day in January turned the marl into mush.