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Marines Adapt To Austere Home In The Desert…Female Troops Would Help Lead Charge

Marines Adapt To Austere Home In The Desert

By Hilda M. Perez | Sentinel Staff Writer

March 14, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved.

KUWAIT DESERT NEAR THE IRAQ BORDER -- Everything here begins and ends with sand. This is not soft, welcoming, Chamber of Commerce Florida sand. It is as coarse as sandpaper, hard as gravel, and during the endless sandstorms, as stinging and aggressive as a horde of mosquitoes.

"The first night I spent here, I woke up the next morning with a thick layer of sand on me," said Lt. Steve Kane, 24, from Orlando.

"It looked like someone had left the tent open for years," he said. "Now, I just put headphones on and let the music put me to sleep."

Kane is with the 239-strong 3rd Military Police Company of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division. Its assignment: Guard, protect, account and provide basic life support for those who are captured, detained, confined or evacuated by U.S. forces -- in other words, Iraqi prisoners of war or, in military terms, EPWs (Enemy Prisoners of War).

"Accountability and safe, humane treatment of detainees will be essential on a daily basis," said Lt. Col. Mack Huey. "EPWs do not pose a threat to us. It is the terrorist suicide bombers of civilian militants that really concern us."

Scheduled to join the 3rd MP Company shortly are 60 members of a medical unit plus a trauma unit along with 20 field surgeons. As the Kuwaitis will not allow EPWs into their country even for medical emergencies, the military police have to be prepared for anything.

Spartan quarters

Parked in the desert along with a few tents and equipment, the men and women of the 3rd MP have quickly made themselves at home.

There are four people to a tent with clotheslines for their laundry, which is washed in a tiny personal cooler.

There is plenty of water, but meals consist of MREs (Meal, Ready-to-Eat) with maybe a touch of Tabasco to make them more palatable. There is no mess hall or hot food. Toilets made out of wood stand three in a row on the perimeter of the camp.

For the 2nd platoon of the 3rd MP, conditions are even more austere. No tents, just cots placed between Humvees, which sprout antennas that make ideal clotheslines.

But there are few complaints about the Spartan quarters, which replaced the more luxurious -- relatively speaking -- Camp New York, where they had been for several months.

"We are a lot more tightknit," said Sgt. 1st Class Terry Ford, 37, of Lakeland. "We have become closer and rely on each other and depend on each other a lot more."

Ford said the hardest part is not knowing what is going to happen.

"Some days we are super busy, but then there are read-a-book days," said Orlando's Kane, as he turned the pages of Star Wars: Dark Apprentice."

Wind and sand

When the sand storms hit with their 45 mph winds, driving even the shortest distance can take hours.

"Touch your nose and you'll feel how hard it is," said Spc. Sandy Rivera, 26, of Canóvanas, Puerto Rico, on the way to Camp New York, where he and Sgt. Michael Marsolais, 24, of Boston had showers and a hot meal.

It's easy to get lost in the vast darkness. Even during the day, visibility is limited and at night goes to zero.

Which is why Rivera and Marsolai were late one night this week picking up Lt. Col. Huey.

"He is going to be so mad," Rivera said, whistling the theme tune of The Flintstones. "A driver with the MP should never be late . . . but I am still the best driver out here -- who's the one that has the orange juice and fresh peaches in his Humvee."

You can count on Rivera to find luxuries such as orange juice and fresh peaches. You do a favor for Rivera and you get one back. He would be a good match for Radar O'Reilly of M*A*S*H.

"We need to help each other," he said jauntily. "Today I may have something you need, and tomorrow you may have something I need."

After a meal of hamburgers, hot dogs and french fries (no problem with the word French here), Rivera and his passengers head back through the desert to their assembly area, which they have named Hammer in tribute to the 3rd Combat Brigade based at Fort Benning, Ga. As they ride, the men eat appropriately named Oasis pineapple-cream Popsicles.

"Better taste as much as you can now because in a little while it is going to be gone, and it'll be sometime before you can eat one of those again," Marsolais tells Rivera.

Female Troops Would Help Lead Charge

By Hilda M. Perez | Sentinel Staff Writer

March 17, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved.


  • 30,000 served in World War I as Army and Navy nurses.
  • 400,000 served in World War II from Europe to the Pacific and North Africa.
  • 120,000 were on active duty during the Korean War and 13 nurses made the landing at Incheon with Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
  • 265,000 served during the Vietnam War from 1964 to 1973.
  • 40,000 served during the first Persian Gulf War -- the largest female deployment up until that time.

SOURCE: Sentinel research

KUWAIT DESERT NEAR IRAQ BORDER -- Perched high in the turret of the Humvee, 19-year-old Pvt. Amber Ott grips her M249 squad automatic weapon as she scans an endless sea of sand, alert for anything that could spell trouble.

"I love being a gunner," she says. "There's a feeling you get when you are up here in the turret rather than sitting inside the truck. I am the eyes and ears for my team, and I need to be ready to protect them."

Ott is one of 22 women with the Army's 3rd Military Police Company training in the Kuwait desert near the Iraq border, awaiting orders to head for Baghdad.

There will be no safe jobs at the rear for these women. They are among their company's gunners, squad leaders, team leaders and platoon leaders. And if there is a war, they will be among the first into combat. Their mission: to help guard, protect and care for enemy prisoners of war.

"There are no other female soldiers in the U.S. military who will be more far forward in a combat situation," says Command Sgt. Major Chuck Medley. "This is very unique. They will be with the first combat elements in a mix of combat operations and security operations."

Medley is proud of his female soldiers. They may be young, but they are tough and well-trained.

"The argument against females in combat is out the window as far as what we do," he says. "This is an impressive group of women. They're hard as woodpecker lips. They can take it, and I have no hesitation about going into it [war] with them."

Basic training

Ott of Shippensburg, Pa., in her first year of service and making her first trip overseas as a gunner with the 6th Platoon of the 3rd MP, remembers the "Oh, a girl!" attitude during basic training. But, she says, the men "quickly see that we can do everything they do, and we prove ourselves. Quickly you are treated like an equal."

Returning from the escort mission, Ott carefully unloads the Humvee, taking out first a sleeping bag and then Stitch, a blue and pink stuffed animal from the movie Lilo & Stitch -- a gift from a friend before she left home.

"I had to sacrifice bringing some personal things to make room for him," she says, taking her camouflage floppy hat off and shaking granules of sand out of her blond braided hair. "It's my comfort item and helps me sleep."

Baby wipes and powder

Medley says the 3rd MP, which is part of the 3rd Army Infantry Division, makes absolutely no exceptions for female soldiers.

"These women have had to be in the same austere conditions as their male counterparts and figured out how to live alongside them," he says. "They are used to being in high-risk situations."

While other military organizations may have different rules for women, Medley maintains that is a mistake because "you create division in the environment when you make exceptions."

So here in this desert outpost "no exceptions" means just that -- even when it comes to sleeping quarters, showering and going to the toilet.

Sgt. Shola Walker, 22, of Augusta, Ga., of the 5th Platoon says hygiene -- or lack of it -- is probably the worst part of being stranded miles from anywhere, surrounded by nothing but sand.

"Thank God for those baby wipes," she says. "I basically just use a lot of baby powder to stay clean. No different than the guys."

Spc. Sandy Rivera, 26, of Canóvanas, Puerto Rico, nods sympathetically.

"It must be hard for women," he says. "I mean, guys all we need is one baby wipe, and we can do wonders with it."

Walker is a veteran of the Kuwait desert, having spent a summer here when the temperatures reached 136 degrees.

"It was miserable; it was so hot," she recalls. "We worked a lot; it was a faster pace than this time. We drove about 50,000 miles in just six months."

Unisex quarters

Sgt. Dawn Conigy, 23, of Ebensburg, Pa., has served in Egypt, Korea, Bosnia and once before in Kuwait. She credits her six years in the service with giving her confidence and skills.

"Basic training, I thought the guys wouldn't want me there," she says. "But things have changed. In ways, no matter how things are equal, we females are naturally looked at different. But you have to be willing to put yourself in that situation and then go the extra mile to prove yourself.

"We get to play in the dirt a lot more. Once you prove it to you and others that you can do what the guys are doing, the guys are really good about accepting you. Yeah, things were rough at the beginning. The more I did the more they expected, and I was the only female. But then I realized they expected the same from me as they did from everyone else."

"I find females in leadership are usually the toughest on other females," Walker says.

"It's hard love, but it is to make sure we succeed," says Conigy, rubbing Chap Stick on her lips.

Conigy shares a tent with Spc. Shawn Alsteen, 22, a gunner from Green Bay, Wis. Sharing tents is one way the military tries to foster the all-soldiers-are-equal mentality. The quarters are bare -- a narrow cot on each side with personal belongings stored underneath.

Alsteen and Conigy respect each other's space.

And, he says, there is a benefit to the women "doing the same things we do. It has opened our eyes more to see that they can do it We all do the same work. They've had to do the same work we did to get here. We treat them like soldiers, but we respect that they're women. I can take a lot from them, such as my tentmate Sgt. Conigy. She was a gunner once, and now she leads me as a team leader."

A woman's touch

Like many of the soldiers, Alsteen's and Conigy's fathers were also in the military.

"My father was a tank mechanic in the Army," Alsteen says. "You didn't have females doing so much. They were usually nurses. Now they do it all. This has helped to bridge the integration of the sexes."

As he steps into their tent, Alsteen pauses and points to an empty sandbag at the entrance with the word "Welcome" printed in marker.

"She made that," he says. "I like it."

"OK, so it shows some sensitivity," Conigy says, overhearing Alsteen's comment about the feminine touch. "Guys are too hard to do something like that."

Walker, adjusting her 60-pound gear on her 5-foot-7-inch frame, recalls that her father didn't want her to join the service "because when he was in it, females were treated differently and looked at more for sex than what they were able to do."

But, she says, she hasn't experienced anything negative or bad during her four years in the Army.

"This platoon in particular is like a family," she says of the 5th Platoon. "That's one of the best things. We have to deal with the environment, attitudes, and you can't just walk away so we learn to co-exist."

Meals and duties

Conigy walks over and grabs an MRE (Meal, Ready-to-Eat) from a mountain of boxes -- it's chicken and salsa again. Then walking past six other soldiers who have gathered around a small boombox to listen to a Chris Rock comedy CD while they eat, she goes to her Humvee, known here as HMMWV for High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle.

"This way I keep sand out, and I am also on standby, ready to go if they need me for some mission," Conigy says.

As the troops wait for military action against Iraq, a mission in the Kuwait desert for the military police could entail answering a call to a traffic accident, escorting a convoy of supplies, providing security for the troops or acting as quick reaction forces in case of emergency. And there is also the dreaded burning of waste material from the Port-O-Lets and the trash.

Daily routine

Conigy usually goes to bed about 10 p.m. and listens to her CD player. She has had it for six years and taken it everywhere with her. It is her lucky charm.

A typical day at Assembly Area Hammer begins with a 6:30 a.m. wake-up call -- eight hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time.

In her physical-training shorts and gray Army shirt, Conigy freshens up as much as she can, then heads to her Humvee to check tires, gauges, controls and fluids and begin the day's work.

"Bravo, can you hear me? " Conigy asks, repeating the query four times as she touches a rosary hanging from a large screw inside the Humvee. Slowly fingering the edges of the crucifix, she hangs up the communication radio after learning that scheduled battlefield-movement techniques have been canceled.

Her driver, Spc. Michael Aaron, begins to take off his vest and gear.

"These things are uncomfortable," he says referring to the new 20-pound ceramic-plate inserts for their flak vests.

"I feel tight around here," he says, pointing to his chest.

"I know it," Conigy says with a laugh. "I don't think it's contoured for females either."

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