By Linda D. Kozaryn
_ This has got to be one of the bleakest places on earth. There isn't a blade of grass, bramble or bush.
Neither hummock nor hill mars the horizon. An occasional train of Bedouin nomads breaks the monotonous landscape. The only permanent inhabitants of this barren desert are beetles, camels, flies, scorpions and snakes.
This is the Udairi Range, about 80 miles from the Iraqi border. Here, about 1,200 American service members are learning to survive temperatures above 140 degrees Fahrenheit and whirling sandstorms that invade every crack and crevice.
Compared to the Udairi, the Army's National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., is a theme park, with its rock formations, scrub brush, hills and valleys. Here, it is absolutely flat. You can walk for days and see nothing. There are no landmarks. Compasses and map reading skills are prerequisites for survival.
ince August, the Army's 4th Battalion, 64th Armor, 3rd Infantry Division, known as Task Force Tusker 4-64, has been practicing its warfighting skills here during Intrinsic Action. The exercise continues year-round, with stateside units rotating in and out on four-month deployments.
Intrinsic Action tests the soldiers' ability to rapidly deploy to the region. This capability is well honed, said Maj. Gen. Charles Campbell, deputy commanding general of Central Command's 3rd Army. American soldiers have been training in Kuwait since the end of Desert Storm.
"We've got this challenge pretty well down," Campbell said. "We're pretty good at deploying a force from the continental United States to the desert sands of Kuwait. We've been doing it for a long time, and we've got the requisite skills. As they say in the vernacular, 'We've been there, done that, got that T-shirt.'"
Intrinsic Action is important, Campbell said, because it provides a continuous ground presence in Kuwait that deters aggressive outsiders such as Iraq. "It assures our allies we have the resolve, the commitment and the demonstrated capability to reinforce here in Kuwait, if necessary," the general said. "If deterrence should fail, then our purpose here is to defend."
This deployment was the second time around for Lt. Col. Dennis Rogers, from Phenix City, Ala. The task force commander deployed to Kuwait in 1991 as a task force executive officer. Rogers said getting soldiers acclimatized to the desert was one of the first challenges. "Until you get here, you have no idea of what the heat is like," he said.
nother challenge for the unit was the deployment's length _ four months. "Normally," Rogers said, "when we go to the field at our home station at Fort Stewart [Ga.], we're gone for two or three weeks and then we're back home. If we go to the National Training Center, we're there for about 30 days, then we're back home. We're here for quite a while."
Task force leaders worked hard to make the austere conditions bearable, Rogers said. A morale area was set up where soldiers can watch TV, call home and work out. "We've made this livable and improved quality of life to the point where we think the soldiers are comfortable. It's not like home and we miss our families, but we're comfortable here."
Desert training gives the task force a chance to practice its mission, the commander said. "Our job is to be able to move, shoot and communicate," Rogers said. "That's what we do as a tank force. We're able to get wherever we're needed quickly. We're able to talk en route, and we're able to take care of anything [we encounter] on the way."
The task force brought only personal gear from Fort Stewart. They drew M-1A1 Abrams main battle tanks, M-109A6 Paladin 155 mm howitzers, M-2A2 Bradley fighting vehicles, and other heavy equipment from pre-positioned stocks at Camp Doha, a two-hour drive from this desert site. In only a matter of hours after landing, Task Force Tusker 4-64 had drawn equipment and moved into forward tactical assembly areas.
Self-sufficiency is the name of the game in the Udairi. Whatever the task force needed to operate, it had to supply. First Sgt. Timothy Loss of Tuskegee, Ala., 26th Forward Support Battalion, said his unit provides supplies and maintains equipment.
e're the retailers in the middle of a wholesale system," Loss said. Everything the task force needs is shipped from depots to the support battalion for distribution to the units. He said that although his soldiers miss their families and home-cooked food, they're highly motivated and morale is high.
"Most of my soldiers wanted to come here," he said. "They wanted the challenge because it sets them apart from other soldiers. It gives them the opportunity to excel."
For Spc. Elsie Nieves of Brooklyn, N.Y., the exercise was a chance to share her knowledge as a chemical operations specialist. Nieves' platoon from Fort McClellan, Ala., the 11th Chemical Company, 84th Battalion, 82nd Airborne Division, was attached to the task force for the exercise. The soldiers conducted classes on how to react to a chemical or biological hazard.
Everyone carries gas masks at all times, Nieves said. "We're practically next door to Iraq. We're aware Saddam Hussein has used chemical weapons and he can do it again. It's very important for us to be out here. It's our job to teach as much as we can on how to protect yourself and avoid chemical attack."
Going from Georgia swamps to the Kuwaiti desert was a real culture shock, according to Staff Sgt. Wayne Harkins, a tank platoon sergeant from Atlanta, assigned to B Company, 4th Battalion, 64th Armor.
"When we walked off the plane at about 9 or 10 at night, it felt like we were standing behind the engine exhaust," he said. "They handed us our chow for the evening and a bottle of water, and we realized, it wasn't the engine, this is a hot, hot place.
"For the first three weeks that heat kicked our tail end pretty bad," Harkins continued."We wanted to get everything done, but realized we couldn't because we had to pace ourselves. We come from the hot humidity of Georgia, where we're used to seeing ourselves sweat. Over here, it's hot, but you're not sweating, so you don't think you're hot. The next thing you know, you're dehydrated and you're going to see the medics."
arkins said the unit also had to get accustomed to using pre-positioned equipment. While everything rolled out under its own power from the storage site, some vehicles needed some fine-tuning once they reached the desert. He attributed this to the "use and abuse" of different units drawing the equipment. The desert was another factor. "The environment takes a toll; air filters and other things clog up."
He said the hardest thing for the troops, however, is simply being away from home. "This is the very first time the vast majority of these guys have been separated from their wives. You can call home, but you run the risk of mounting up a huge phone bill."
"The family support group back at Fort Stewart is doing a real good job," Harkins noted. "They've sent us two videos. We've got a poster in our dining facility that's got messages from all the wives and kids that they sent over with the second video."
Overall, the deployment was a good experience,
said tank gunner Sgt. Erik Petravicius of Union Pier, Mich., B Company,
4th Battalion, 64th Armor. He said it gave him a chance to see another
part of the world. But after 60 days at Udairi Range, he admitted, "I'm
pretty much ready to go home."