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US Troops Confident, Anxious as Prospect of War Looms - 2003-02-26

As the diplomatic effort to force Iraq to eliminate its weapons of mass destruction continues, the United States is assembling troops and military assets in the Persian Gulf region. As VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Fort Bliss, Texas (near El Paso), it is a difficult time for both the soldiers and the families they leave behind.

Small children know something is happening here at the Fort Bliss community center. They are here to say goodbye to their fathers, and in some cases, their mothers, who are dressed in camouflage uniforms, carrying packs, helmets, and rifles.

War ceases to be an abstract concept after you have seen a teary-eyed father in combat uniform kissing his wife and babies goodbye.

Anxiety over what may happen in the months ahead is the special torment of military spouses. The wife of one departing soldier, Virginia Rice, says she is nervous, but hopeful that he will be back safe and soon.

"We are praying that the Lord is going to help him and that they will come back safely. That is all we can do is pray," she said.

Nearby, specialist Eric Klemptner hugs his fiance' while waiting to board the bus that will take him to a transport plane. His job, once deployed, will be to maintain and distribute chemical warfare protection suits for the troops in his company. Despite stories that some suits could be defective or simply uncomfortable in the desert heat, he remains confident.

"They have been tested for the past two years and I personally think that we have the best equipment around," he said. "The last suits we had were made of charcoal and they were very heavy, but the new suits we just got in are nylon and they are very light weight and breathable."

Watching the whole scene with a calm, but determined look is a man who has seen it all before. Staff Sergeant Ronald Rankin served in the Gulf War 12 years ago and has been deployed on assignments to Kuwait a few times since then. He says he has helped the men and women serving under him prepare for what may come.

"I know what to expect from the experience I had the first time, but I was a soldier then, I am a soldier now, but I was a subordinate then and now I am in charge of all the soldiers," he said. "I think I am fully prepared and I have prepared all my soldiers. So I think we are good to go."

Sergeant Rankin says all the news about Iraq and the controversies surrounding U.S. policy are irrelevant to him as a soldier. He says his duty is to fulfill whatever mission is assigned.

"I make sure that all my soldiers understand that we are in the army, we are in the military, we have to obey our orders. It does not matter what I think, really. We just do what we got to do," said Sergeant Rankin.

Flakus: How long do you think you will be over there? Do you have any idea?

"It is kind of a UTC, until complete. That is what it will be," he responded. "When the job is done, that is when we are coming back. However quick it happens or however long it takes, that is how long we will be over there."

There have been 3,600 troops deployed to the Persian Gulf from Fort Bliss. On this day, 300 shipped out.

Most are from the regular army units based here. Many of them are crews assigned to maintaining and operating Patriot missiles.

But there are also more than 100 army reservists from nearby Las Cruces, New Mexico who are assigned to transportation duties. Watching them depart are two sergeants, named Smith and Sullivan, who are being kept behind for medical reasons. Al Sullivan, a 40-plus-year army career soldier, says it is hard to watch his people go.

"It is a very emotional time for both Sergeant Smith and myself, to have to stay back and see guys we have sacrificed with and trained with going off, basically, in harm's way," he said. " We are here to support them and wish them well. We have been in contact with the advance party that already left. Whatever they need, we send."

Once the troops have deployed, there is nothing for those left behind to do but wait for news of war, or possibly some peaceful solution to the crisis. The soldiers say this is what comes with being in the military and it is a burden they accept.

Their families also know this, but it does not make the waiting any easier.