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Kuwait Waiting

My headquarters during this portion of my journey has been the fiberglass-walled, canvas-roofed tent that houses the Third Army's Public Affairs Office. These are the people who bring in journalists from all over the world to connect them with the specific units they are covering. The voluminous tent - the size of an aircraft hangar - is packed with other offices and agencies, and is busy 24 hours per day.

Based on my observations from the air, the car, and from Ali Al-Salem, Kuwait is a vast expanse of largely dusty and featureless terrain, marred only by industrial parks, large cities, and oil fields. Having driven to the base at night, all that could be seen was the fine sand and squat brown trees on the sides of the highway, but as dawn broke at Ali Al-Salem - a transitional base where soldiers and contractors wait for transfer to other places - the sun revealed that the arid, uninteresting terrain continues almost endlessly in every direction.

Still, in this man-made oasis, the thing that struck me more than the starkness of the terrain was all of the stuff. Everything is provided for here, and in quantities that are staggering. Noisy diesel generators are ubiquitous. Truckloads of food, bottled water, and other supplies arrive throughout the day. McDonald's, KFC, and Pizza Hut are easier to find than the very well stocked dining facility. The amount of pre-packaged goods is staggering - a lot of trash is generated here. I haven't seen too many water canteens yet, but as this dry climate necessitates regular and copious consumption of water, bottled water is available everywhere. Accustomed as I am to Santa Barbara's relatively diligent recycling program, it feels strange to chuck every plastic bottle I've consumed into the same receptacle as the Kleenex I blew the dust out of my nose with.

Then there are the people, from all over the world, constantly coming and going. Forming cues out in front of the tents that serve as offices, they wait to be bussed to the adjacent Air Force base and flown to points all over the Middle East. Workers from other countries - usually from India, Sri Lanka, Quatar, and other poor Asian countries - perform every menial task imaginable here, from emptying trash to cleaning up dirty towels at the gym. I've been told that many of these people - referred to as Third Country Nationals (TCNs) send money back home to provide their families with the means to live a life that would not be possible if they lived at home. Some of them work for a year or two, returning home for only a month or so before coming back to often dodgey communal living conditions outside of the base. Sound familiar, Santa Barbara?

Coming into the dining hall to stuff my face with yet another hearty meal - compliments of the ever-present Kellogg, Brown, & Root (or KBR, as they're commonly known) - I was greeted cheerfully by an Aussie soldier. "G'day mate!" he chimed, giving my orders barely a skim before waving me through with a smile. Sometimes, the person assigned to check IDs at the chow hall isn't that nice and scrutinize my orders and the picture on my passport as if they can't believe someone actually let me into the place. But there are so many contractors of various different shapes, sizes, and hairstyles, that the sight of me doesn't usually phase them. For example, yesterday, I learned that apparently, flak jackets are one size fits all. A very large contractor had one on (they're required on military flights), and it did little to cover his enormous torso. I really hope he doesn't get shot at, but I think that the flak jacket is really one of those largely unnecessary extra precautionary measures for most who use them.

Seeing the mass of material at Ali Al-Salem reminded me of all of the tangible things we as Americans have access to. I recalled a passage from Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried - a first person account of his experiences during the Vietnam War - which detailed an occasion when his platoon came upon a dead Vietnamese soldier. Lying in a ditch, all the thin man had on his body were a rifle, a few clips of ammunition, and a pouch full of rice. "...for all the ambiguities of Vietnam, all the mysteries and unknowns, there was at least the single abiding certainty that they [American soldiers] would never be at a loss for things to carry."

All in all, everyone who is here is comfortable and well-cared for. There is plenty of food, there are places to watch movies, gyms, and even gift shops, but it's not the sort of place that many people want to be stuck in for too long. Despite all of the creature comforts, it is a sleepless limo where your length of stay is uncertain, but your lack of action is. Waiting for transportation involves being within earshot of a KBR employee (yes, they manage the Air Force's passenger lists, too) with the passenger manifest. Miss your call, and you miss your flight, extending your stay in a comfortable, but maddeningly monotonous place.

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