Originally created 01/05/03

Ready and waiting



KUWAITI DESERT - War sounds like a jackhammer.

War tastes like Tabasco sauce.

War smells like jet fuel and smoking guns.

War looks as dark as a moonless night.

War feels gritty like sandpaper and cold like a freezer door opened in your face.

Officially, this is Operation Desert Spring, a six-month mission to train 3rd Infantry Division soldiers from Georgia's Fort Stewart for desert combat while deterring Iraqi aggression toward its neighbor, Kuwait. But every soldier - from the infantryman toting an M-16 rifle to the cook serving grits at base camp - knows this could turn into real combat soon.

In Kuwait, invasion of Iraq is referred to as "going north."

All around are signs of a military buildup: The Army built a new camp with helicopter landing pads and hard shells for hangars in early December.

New soldiers trickle into the three base camps every day, and they are not part of the regular training mission.

Some soldiers who thought they would be going home just before Christmas have been told they are staying indefinitely. On Dec. 8, one infantry battalion's soldiers found themselves three miles from the Iraq border, wondering how coincidental their training really was. After all, that was the date Iraq was supposed to hand over its weapons program documents to the United Nations.

Commanders insist the training is nothing unusual. The U.S. military has been conducting exercises and shooting live rounds in the area since the end of the Persian Gulf War, said Lt. Col. Stephen Twitty, 3rd Battalion, 15th Infantry commander.

Since that war ended in March 1991, the Army has rotated troops through the Kuwaiti desert. The 3rd Division has shared the mission with other armored units, except for 2000-01, when the division went to the Balkans for peacekeeping.

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Army increased the size of its force in the desert. The training mission has become the 3rd Division's full-time responsibility.

As soon as troops hit the ground in Kuwait, hard-core training begins.

Soldiers begin practicing combat skills before, a few weeks into the deployment, an entire battalion moves into the open desert for a live-fire exercise.

Finally, the entire brigade participates in a training maneuver that involves 3,500 soldiers, 1,300 armored vehicles and 91 miles of desert. All of it places them within three miles of the Iraq border, a location that impresses the urgency of war on soldiers.

Some analysts predict Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's military would not put up much of a fight in the open desert. Instead, they say Saddam would pull his troops into Baghdad and fight an urban war. So 3rd Division troops are preparing for that scenario, too. The urban training is held in mock buildings in the desert. But there's one thing that cannot be replicated in training: an enemy shooting back.

No one in 3rd Battalion, 15th Infantry knows that better than Command Sgt. Maj. Robert Gallagher. He's the senior enlisted soldier in the battalion and has seen combat in Panama, Operation Desert Storm and Somalia. He wears three Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star for valor.

"Nothing can replace being thrown five feet in the air and landing on your back because a round hit near you," Maj. Gallagher said.

It happened to him in Somalia, and he knows what it's like to make your mind climb out of the temporary shock.

Soldiers devour Maj. Gallagher's advice.

He possesses an almost mythical status within the unit. He is the Bob Gallagher, the one fretting over medical evacuations in the book Black Hawk Down, soldiers explain when talking about their sergeant major. Troops often ask Maj. Gallagher about his combat experience, and he hopes it relieves their apprehension.

When they ask about the prospects of war this time, Maj. Gallagher answers only, "I don't know."

"If you listen to the TV, we left five minutes ago," he said. "All we can do is be prepared to execute when the order comes."