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THURSDAY, MARCH 28, 1991
Kuwait City

Took off this morning for the daily border patrol. There were some changes since my last trip a week ago; a big refugee camp has sprouted in the town of Safwan with a thousand or more Iraqis streaming in each day. What was once a few Red Cross tents in an open lot has been replaced by a huge walled enclosure topped by barbed wire, guarded by American soldiers, with frisk searches of every man entering or leaving. (Women and children are not frisked, but their belongings are checked.) I also noticed that in a week's time the little beggar children have learned the English word "food." So far they would appear to be well-taken-care-of and certainly well-protected; the men were moving in scrap tin, boards, and matting for what looks like a long stay. But we took a few pictures and moved on, in the direction they were coming.

Richard Blystone
Reporter Richard Blystone finally gives up
somewhere on the Iraqi border
The ceasefire line showed considerable changes as well. The U.S. army was out in force, with tanks and armored vehicles on the move everywhere but home. Fortified checkpoints guarded every crossroad. We hooked up with an army medical team about to go on a few house calls among the Bedouin, so we invited ourselves along. As we pulled out of the camp we were stopped by an uptight captain intent on flexing his muscle (or his throbbing boner, as Sean put it.) He told us we needed permission from Division HQ to shoot anything, and pointed us out into the desert in search of some command post.

Not even Moses could have led us out of that wilderness. We ended up wandering the Ramallah oil field, the very spot on the Kuwait-Iraq border that had sparked Saddam's invasion in the first place. This sandy stretch was crisscrossed by dozens of rutted dirt roads, and a sentry or two posted at each intersection. At each intersection we asked for the HQ for the Third Armored Division, and each time we got a shrug and a guess--in a different direction from the last grunt we had asked. I don't think there was any conspiracy to get us lost; the average soldier is thrilled to see an American civilian, especially a journalist. But I do believe the army just takes these guys and drops them off on a patch of ground and tells them, "just wait here until we come for you." If these poor kids don't know where their leaders are, I sure hope the officers know where they left these boys.

As usual, our driver Ali had neglected to fill up our gas tank before leaving town, so once again we watched the gauge fall with no help in sight. As we drained our two-gallon reserve can into the tank, I wasn't amused at the thought of running out of gas in the world's richest oil field. Unlike the fields of Kuwait, this oil patch was virtually intact--evidence of its importance to Iraq. We drove through one gusher and saw no wells on fire. Mostly what we saw were wrecked Iraqi tanks, dug-in American ones, and lonely soldiers every hundred yards. After 3 hours of meandering we never found our headquarters, but we did find a sergeant with ten gallons of motor gas (MOGAS in the military jargon.) He filled us up and we started back to Kuwait.

And back on the highway, we found our medic making his rounds. To hell with channels, we shot our story anyway: a touching tale of American GIs bringing food and medicine to needy little children.1

Afterwards, we hung out at one checkpoint as they processed new arrivals from deep inside Iraq. These brought the usual tales of torture and massacre. I talked awhile with one tank crew about the "battle" they had fought against the Republican Guard (Saddam's elite troops--ed.) there in southern Iraq. Of any ground forces these probably saw the most resistance, and it wasn't much. A majority of the knocked-out vehicles are pointing north; the Iraqis had been ordered to withdraw two days before the attack. I asked how I could tell which tanks were hit by air attack, and they said it was easy--those are the ones that are shredded, ripped open like a can of sardines, turrets tossed fifty feet from the burned-out hulls. If they were hit by tank fire, there was usually just a small hole on the outside and the interior incinerated. The killing range of the Abrams tank is well over a mile, so they were not even sure whether their target was manned or abandoned. Later they might find bodies, or body parts. All in all, it was a good field exercise, and these tankers are proud of their performance. But I can't think of them as truly combat tested, because from what I hear no Iraqi ever fired back.

Of course we were late getting back to town, and Dick still had to write his piece. With all our footage of refugees and doctors, the story turned into another 4-minute epic. And there's a bitter irony in staying up past midnight editing a package when you know some hack in Atlanta is going to rip out its heart before it ever sees air. But it will look good on the resume reel.


1Editor's note, 2011: I vividly recall the image of this handsome young soldier proudly handing an elderly Bedouin woman an MRE containing processed ham--a food no Muslim should touch.

an open MRE
MREs are forever,
as this blogger learned in a taste test
Because I never wrote about it back then, I now will say a few words about the U.S. military's packaged food ration called the MRE, or Meal-Ready-to-Eat. Though much maligned, it was a model of efficiency: sealed in a brown plastic pouch was everything one person needed for one meal, minus the water. There was a main course, like ham or chicken or beef stew, sealed in its own brown pouch; this could be eaten cold, or warmed in hot water and then opened and eaten. There were pouches of crackers and peanut butter and kool-aid powder; and a set of plastic utensils with salt, pepper, tabasco, matches, a napkin, and even a few squares of toilet paper. I remember one soldier looking at his unopened MRE in distaste and saying, "Maybe I should just go dig a hole, bury it now, and cut out the middleman."

I certainly ate my share, and I found them digestible if not entirely palatable. And it was a novelty I wanted to share with others back home. So I traded my best CNN sweatshirt to an army staff sergeant for a case of MREs and lugged the carton halfway around the world. When the U.S. Customs inspector at the San Francisco airport asked if I was bringing any food into the country, I pointed out my Meals-Ready-to-Eat. "That's not food!" he declared and waved me through.


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