STANDOFF IN THE GULF
In Qatar, Forgotten U.S. Warriors Wait
By JUDITH MILLER, SPECIAL TO THE NEW YORK TIMES
Published: December 25, 1990
They are the forgotten 1,000.
There have been no nightly news photos of these members of the United States armed forces, and no television interviews about their mission, living conditions and morale. Unlike the Americans in Saudi Arabia, who have been the focus of lavish attention, these men and women have had virtually no visitors from the states.
Few Americans even know they are here in Qatar, or even where exactly Qatar is. Neither did their commander, Col. Jerry Nelson, who was ordered to bring his F-16's here from the unit's home base at Torrejon, Spain, at the end of August with less than a day's notice.
"I grabbed my National Geographic and looked it up myself to figure out where we were going," Col. Nelson said.
For the past four months, the 48 women and some 900 men of the 401st Tactical Fighter Wing have been sleeping in air-conditioned tents on the national air base in this country, a peninsula the size of Connecticut in the middle of the gulf with an estimated population of roughly 350,000, less than 90,000 of whom are of Qatari descent.
Sharing Thoughts of Christmas
On Sunday night and this morning, men and women from the 401st shared their thoughts on this Christmas season, the unease fostered by waiting for war and the boredom of their lives here with a small group of American reporters, the first permitted to visit the forces in Doha.
Qatar, among the poorest of the enormously wealthy gulf states and the one with the smallest population, did not hide the American presence here. But it did not exactly boast about it either. Although Qatar is not a likely military target, neither Qatar nor any of the other gulf sheikdoms seems eager to publicize any role as host to the American military, or the presence of some 550 Canadian pilots and support staff and some 60 members of the French Air Force.
"Qatar never rejected any request to come here," said John Berry, the United States Information Service officer in Doha. "But this is a place that tends to get overlooked. Reporters weren't exactly flocking here."
It was only because of the summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the six-member economic and military cooperation group, that the 401st's anonymity ended.
On Sunday night at a Christmas party, Ambassador Mark Hambley, wearing a T-shirt saying "Visit Iraq before Iraq visits you," gave some members of the air wing what they described as "the world's largest postcard" -- a 37-pound, 575-foot-long scroll of seasons greetings signed by some 10,000 people from Odessa County in Texas. Air wing members sent a collective Christmas cheer back home to friends and family, courtesy of the Cable News Network.
"Americans may not know exactly where we are, but we're getting 8,000 to 9,000 letters a day addressed to 'any soldier', " said Lieut. Col. Bruce Wright. And then there are the cookies. Some 1,200 pounds of them arrived from the United States the other day. "There is no sugar left in the United States," Col. Nelson said. "We need dentists."
Burgers Close to the Base
Members of the 401st have tried to get into the Christmas spirit. Some of the 70 tents at what is now called "Doha Air Base Tent City" are decorated with Christmas wreaths and trees. Church services will be held at the tent city tonight and on Christmas Day.
The base has a few comforts of home -- a Hardee's fast food stand just outside the American part of the base, a PX with sundries and toiletries and a "morale, welfare, and recreation" tent that has weight-lifting, volleyball and other sports equipment.
Because most of the wing's members are confined to the base most of the time, a Pizza Hut in Doha does a landslide take-out business. But Qatar, like almost all of the Islamic gulf region, does not permit alcohol, so "you can forget about the beer and egg nog," one young airman complained.
"It's really boring," said another airman, Phillip Wallace of Long Island City, Queens. "I just want to get this over with and go home."
'150 Percent Ready' by Jan. 15
Several wing members said they looked forward to the Jan. 15 deadline set by the United Nations Security Council for Iraqi forces to leave Kuwait. Ricardo Febles, a 30-year-old technical sergeant and weapons specialist from Ponce, P.R., said the deadline put a limit on the waiting. "Now the adrenalin is up," he said. "By Jan. 15, we'll be 150 percent ready and raring to go. We'll be sending Saddam a couple of Christmas gifts if he doesn't get his act together."
Homesickness was particularly acute because of Christmas. Sergeant Febles, for example, got married only a month before coming here. "I brought my camera so that when people ask me where I spent my honeymoon, I'll say I spent it in Qatar," he said.
Maintaining a Relationship
Love has also bloomed here among the thoughts of war in Tent City. Staff Sgt. Cameron Miller, 29, a Sandy, Utah, resident who is in aircraft maintenance, proposed to his superior officer, Technical Sgt. Mary Sousa, from Stoughton, Mass., soon after they came here. She said yes.
"But it's tough because we have to sleep in separate tents," Sergeant Miller said. "All we can do is hold hands, and we can't even do that in town." Sergeant Sousa added, "We want to get married in April -- if it's over by then."