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An American Oasis in Iraq's Shadow

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

PRINCE BIN SULTAN AIR BASE, Saudi Arabia, Dec. 16, 1997 – U.S. forces may have created an air-conditioned oasis here with cable news and swimming pools, but they can never forget one dire fact: Saddam Hussein looms to the north. They live and work in the shadow of Iraq.

U.S. troops here know they are "smack dab in the middle" of the conflict between the Iraqi dictator and the United Nations, said Air Force Brig. Gen. Bentley B. Rayburn. The 4404th Wing (Provisional) commander said recent tensions have put added focus on his unit's real-world mission.

"We were the lead story for quite some time," Rayburn said. "For at least a month and a half, troops here knew what they were doing was the central issue of world events."

When CNN reported Hussein's threats to shoot down American U-2 surveillance planes, airmen knew it was their planes under the gun, he said. It was up to their jet fighters and other combat aircraft to protect the U-2s when they defied the Iraqi challenge.

People at the remote base are extremely interested in world events, the commander said. "I will get stopped by everybody from young enlisted members to officers talking about what's going on. They'll say, 'I heard them say this on CNN, what's your reaction?' And, they'll tell me what they think."

Even those not actively involved in flight operations see and hear aircraft taking off nearly 24 hours a day, Rayburn said. Whether they're pilots, maintenance crews, security forces or support service personnel, everyone supports the same mission: Operation Southern Watch.

More than 4,500 troops here, including British and French air forces and U.S. Army Patriot missile crews, help enforce the U.N.-mandated no-fly, no-drive zone. Coalition aircraft fly sorties into what's known as "the box" over southern Iraq.

Readiness at Prince Bin Sultan is extremely high, Rayburn said. "We know the job we're supposed to do, and we are ready, willing and able to do it at a moment's notice."

Stringent security measures help keep troops from feeling particularly vulnerable, he said. "Force protection measures are visible. Even the person who may work in civil engineering or as a jet engine mechanic, though his job may not be manning an outpost, nevertheless, he sees force protection each and every day."

The American base is located within a Saudi Arabian air base. U.S. Air Force officials have ringed the U.S. working and living areas with observation posts, checkpoints, obstacles and high-tech security devices. Security forces make up about 10 percent of the wing.

"This is probably one of the most secure places in the world," said Air Force Tech. Sgt. Luke Carney, a support services NCO from San Jose, Calif. "First, [a terrorist would] have to get onto the Saudi base, then [the terrorist] have to get in through our gates. Everything that comes on [base] goes through a search procedure."

Generally, morale remained high during recent tensions with Iraq, Carney said, but there was some apprehension among the ranks. "There were a lot of rumors floating around that people who were ready to go home might not get to go. But things have calmed down."

Base residents are "confidently cocky" about the Iraqi threat, said Air Force Staff Sgt. Harold Stull, from Omaha, Neb. The 55th Communications Squadron photographer said, "We're not too worried about Saddam."

Air Force Master Sgt. Art Tovar, who arrived at the desert base in late November from the 838th Engineering and Installation Squadron at Kelley Air Force Base, Texas, echoed Stull's attitude.

Tovar said he's confident coalition forces can handle the situation with Iraq. "It doesn't scare me," he said. "We took care of it last time. We'll take care of it again."

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