The sun was searing the desert floor at 110 degrees last week when Marines of a rifle company were ordered into full chemical-warfare combat gear. They struggled, panting and sweating, into thick coveralls, black rubber boots and masks that left them looking like a troupe of Darth Vaders.
Twenty minutes into the practice drill, one Marine went down, collapsing in a green heap on the sand. ``Get his jacket off - cool him down!' shouted one of his colleagues as others ripped his mask off and began pouring bottles of water over his head.In Saudi Arabia, heat has become the most hostile enemy of U.S. troops. Even more than the nearly 200,000 Iraqi soldiers massed across the Saudi border in Kuwait, the brutality of the sun has been the most dominant force in shaping the initial operations of American ground forces here.
It has prompted military commanders to slow planned operations and has radically disrupted training routines. It is reshaping the lives of even the most hardened Marines and soldiers, exacerbating already austere and stressful conditions.
``The hardest thing we're dealing with here is the combination of the heat, the hours, the sand and the dust,' said Capt. Adrien Burke, 29, commander of the Marine landing-support detachment that is directing the flow of the tons of Marine equipment being flown into Saudi Arabia. ``It makes for long, dusty days and short, sleepless, uncomfortable nights.'
The 20 men of Burke's unit have been camped under a dust-covered tent on the edge of the airfield, without showers or hot meals, since they arrived 13 days ago. They dine on military-issue Meals Ready to Eat - from beef stew and scalloped potatoes to ham cubes or chicken a la king.
``The biggest break of the day is to sit in the shade and drink water,' said Burke, who, like every American commander on the ground in Saudi Arabia, orders troops to drink at least 4 to 6 gallons of water a day.
In the first days of Operation Desert Shield, many U.S. troopers have spent as much time acclimating to the desert as they have establishing defenses for Saudi Arabia. ``You never get climatized,' grumbled a soldier from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division. ``You just learn to tolerate it.'
A Marine sentry guarding a group of tanks Thursday sought a fraction of relief by standing in the shadow of a skinny light pole. American troops have arrived in what is described as the harshest month for this region: the time of year when Iran and Iraq ceased most combat during their eight-year war because of the toll the climate took on both men and machines.
``When they opened the doors of the plane the first night we got here, I nearly had a heart attack - it was 114 degrees,' said a 29-year-old combat signal specialist.
Many of the troops, who normally wear lightweight green jungle fatigues on exercises, say they have been dismayed to find the new sand-colored desert fatigues are as heavy as winter uniforms - so they can stand up to the rocks and rugged desert terrain that would shred the thinner suits.
Commanders of the 7th Marine Expeditionary Brigade, arriving from three California bases, are rotating troops into the desert on four-day training missions in preparation for extended deployments on the monochromatic desert dunes.
Twentynine Palms, a tough training ground in California's Mojave Desert, ``is a lush vacationland compared to this place,' said a Marine on exercises in the Saudi desert Wednesday.
After a few days of operation under the Saudi sun, a growing number of commanders, including those of Marines on drills in the desert, have ordered their troops on ``reverse cycle' - sleeping by day, training during the relative coolness of the night.
Troops have discovered, however, that the night can also be treacherous when poisonous black cobra snakes, giant scorpions and mosquitoes emerge from daytime hideouts.
As the furnace-like winds and heat have kept medical teams working full-time to cure heat stress, rashes and dehydration, the desert also is taxing military equipment.
Marines guarding a port entrance tape fabric over their M-16 rifle barrels to keep dust out. ``Our weapons are so precision-made, the sand is hard on them,' said one Marine officer, noting the sand may affect the reliability of some arms.
The Saudi sand, which seeps into the tiniest crevices, is so powder-fine that it can't even be used to make concrete: The Saudis must import coarser sand for construction. The heat and sand are exacerbating the overcrowded, austere living conditions of troops here in transit to their eventual assignments.
Tent cities have sprouted at airstrips, ports and staging sites in many sections of the country. The Saudis also have provided dozens of makeshift bunkhouses and offices.
Marine helicopter pilots and maintenance personnel have taken over a new Saudi military airport that had not been used before this deployment. Sleeping bags are strewn across the floors and administrative offices, and maintenance shops have been stuffed into every room and spare corner.
By comparison, the airport is a plush accommodation with running water and air conditioning. Hundreds of Marines are bunked in a stifling tin warehouse at a port where ships filled with tons of tanks, trucks and supplies are being unloaded.
``The Saudis actually apologized to us for not being able to put us up in hotels,' said one incredulous soldier. The Saudis already have begun putting up air-conditioned, prefabricated barracks for American forces in some areas.
The Spartan conditions have prompted unusual camaraderie among traditionally competing services. The Air Force, which is housing some of its personnel in an air-conditioned building, has opened its showers to bus loads of Army soldiers camped in tents on the fringes of the airfield.
The military is shipping thousands of air-conditioning units to the region to cool hospital tents, command posts, and buildings and tents used to house sensitive computer equipment.