IN THE KUWAITI DESERT -- Sitting in the driver's seat of a Paladin self-propelled howitzer, Pfc. Joseph McWhorter was all smiles Thursday as he dug into a Valentine's Day box full of his favorite treats and photos from home.
McWhorter and his unit came to the Kuwaiti desert more than four months ago as part of a routine rotation through Kuwait. But as tensions have risen between the United States and Iraq, their mission was extended indefinitely. Tens of thousands of U.S. troops are in Kuwait standing by in case President Bush decides to use force to disarm Saddam Hussein.
"Care packages" from family and friends, especially for holidays, help make the weeks in the Kuwaiti desert bearable for the troops from the 3rd Infantry Division based in Fort Stewart, Ga.
McWhorter, 19, proudly pointed to the return address of his cardboard box, which simply read "Mom."
Candy and beef jerky
"It makes you feel good to get a letter from Mom or Dad and friends," said McWhorter of Tampa, Fla., as he dug into the candy, beef jerky and photos that were in his Valentine's box. "It keeps you motivated knowing the people back home are thinking of you."
McWhorter is part of the C Battery, 1st Battalion of the 9th Field Artillery Regiment.
Just as he was showing off photos of his family, a firing order popped up on the computer screen. He quickly tucked his precious package beneath the seat of his 32-ton, 155mm artillery piece and shut the hatch as the barrel pointed toward its target.
The Paladin commander, Staff Sgt. Juan Cordona, said he orders his crew to write home at least once a week. A 15-year veteran who immigrated to the United States from Colombia, he knows the toll loneliness and homesickness can take.
"Being a soldier, what makes your morale high is getting a letter from a loved one. If you write, you get letters back," said Cordona, also a Gulf War veteran.
The one high point is the mail from home. Or at least most of the time. Pfc. John Thompson received a "Dear John" letter like those that come all too often from wives and girlfriends who can't handle months spent apart.
"She wrote me and said 'You know how you said this was going to be hard on me? Well, it is," said Thompson, a 20-year-old rodeo rider turned machine gunner. "I'm single this Valentine's Day."