CAMP NEW JERSEY, Kuwait -- Pfc. Charles Bryant got lost for three hours on the way back to his tent, disoriented by thick clouds of sand swirling at 50 mph in this desert camp near the Iraqi border.
Sandstorms, a gritty and miserable fact of life in the Persian Gulf region this time of year, are making things uncomfortable for troops waiting for a possible war with Iraq.
They also present major problems for U.S. war planners.
The international dispute over whether to resort to military action against Iraq as the United States seeks threatens to push war -- if it takes place -- toward the inevitable heat, wind and dust of late spring.
Blowing sand and temperatures up to 120 degrees are tough on troops and their equipment, despite technological advances such as night vision gear which make it possible to fight effectively in the relative cool of the night.
Although the United States has satellite-guided bombs and cruise missiles that can strike their targets in bad weather, sand and dust can interfere with laser-guided weapons and gun sights.
Dust clogs engines and grinds down helicopter blades.
At Camp New Jersey, the most immediate problem for the soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division is just getting around in the storms, which arise with unpredictable frequency and can last anywhere from hours to two days.
Keep from getting lost
Sand barriers, or berms, surround the camp -- not to keep an enemy out, but to prevent disoriented soldiers from veering into the desert.
Some officers have used their handheld GPS electronic navigating systems to help find their way to the one remaining mess tent. The other two tents were flattened by the high winds.
"I was out here three hours just trying to get back," said Bryant, the 24-year-old Harlan, Ky., native who got lost on his way back from dinner. The 1,500 yard trip usually takes about 20 minutes.
And as bad as these dust storms are now, when temperatures are in the upper 70s, worse lie ahead.
In late spring and summer, hot, dry winds called shamals sweep in from the north, stirring gusts up to 85 mph. They can raise clouds of sand and dust to several thousand feet. The high temperatures create a demand for large supplies of drinking water for the troops.
The commanding general of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, deployed in Kuwait, said Friday that the military had made "great leaps in technology" since the 1991 Gulf War, but that the weather was still a factor and that summer heat -- reaching above 120 degrees -- would slow down his soldiers.
"We have trained during the summer," Maj. Gen. Buford Blount III said. "It's tough on the them, it's tough on the equipment and we don't want to do that."
The 101st Airborne Division grounds its helicopters -- its bread and butter -- during sandstorms to protect the pilots, said Sgt. Maj. Iuniasolua Savusa of the division's 3rd Brigade.
A Black Hawk helicopter from another unit in Kuwait crashed last month in a sandstorm, killing all four crew members. Investigation into the cause of the crash continues.
There is one advantage to the obscurity created by the clouds of sand, Savusa said. It is easier to move troops undetected and to observe the enemy -- if they can make them out in the storm.
But the bad weather has already created a logistical problem.
The high winds have delayed the arrival of a ship containing some of division's fleet of 275 helicopters, 3,800 military vehicles -- and its meteorological equipment.
"I can't plan stuff because we don't have weather equipment because it's on the ship, and the ship's late because of the weather," said Capt. Charles Cobb, 27, of Checota, Okla., a 3rd Brigade intelligence officer. "It's very frustrating."
Cobb said the division has been able to get weather forecasts elsewhere, but that it would be better to use the division's own equipment.
Around the camp, brown dust covers everything from computer screens to rifles. It gets inside sleeping bags and pelts against the tents.
"I didn't sleep at all last night," 39-year-old Sgt. 1st Class Kimberly Sanders shouted over the din of gale force winds rocking her 20-person tent. "I was afraid the tent was going to blow away," said the Army reservist from the 431 Civil Affairs Battalion out of North Little Rock, Ark.
Soldiers navigate from one tent to the other in goggles and head scarves, stumbling in the gusting winds. They are told to travel in teams of at least two to avoid getting lost.
Just staying clean is a problem. On Thursday night, some soldiers put on their physical training sweat suits and wrapped their heads completely with scarves after showering just to run back to their sleep tent.
"It gets into your ears, your eyes and your nose, but if we have tents we're happy," said Sgt. Maj. Steve Julian, 48.
As the soldiers adjust to the new environment, they get acclimated to it and it will help them in a combat situation, said Savusa, the commander.
"You have to expect the elements out here," he said. "Our job is not indoors."