Tuesday, August 21, 2007


"...The rules in the camp forbid interviewing soldiers, and I play by the rules. But I didn't need to ask those young men and women questions. Not here. I knew them. I'll always know them.

Of course, there are differences between the "old" military in which many Post readers and I served. And most of the changes are for the better.

The most striking thing to a Cold War-era soldier is the profusion of combat patches on the right sleeves of the soldiers - who look bewilderingly young.

But other differences tell, too: While troops will always be troops, there's less "smoking and joking," a greater seriousness than my generation ever showed. And these men and women in uniform are a lot fitter and tougher than we were.

Yet, even in the field showers - where all men are theoretically equal, but certainly aren't in reality - you can still spot Old Sarge in the mufti of Eden. There's just a look you get to know. And you don't need to see a badge to tell which NCOs have been drill sergeants.

And for all of the dishonest campus posturing, if you want to see real diversity, just stand in a military chow line.

As I write, the heat's rising. The August temperatures here bully every living thing. I'll start another round of waiting - as Tom Petty put it, "The waiting is the hardest part." (Once you get to Iraq, it's all adrenaline and Gatorade.)

But my day started wonderfully, after all. Among my brothers. To them, I'm just another old straphanger to be shrugged off - politely. But I've got my images of them to carry me through the day:

* Recruiting-poster Marines in crisp uniforms (even here), handling their weapons as easily as if they've grown a fifth limb: combat vets back for another round.

* The lanky Army private with a don't-talk-much Midwest look who sat down beside me at breakfast. As I dug into my eggs like a great, roaring swine, he folded his flame-shaped hands and whispered a prayer of thanks, just between him and the Lord.

* And the troops lined up with their rucksacks, flying off to war.

Was anything better in the "black-boot Army" (which has now replaced the old brown-shoe Army in the role of the lost legions)?

Yeah, as a matter of fact: For all of the bounty of those contractor-run "dining facilities," no hired cook will ever make the transcendent, worth-a-heart-attack breakfasts our old Army "spoons" used to serve up, along with an unkind word or two. But veterans of all our services and of all our wars will be relieved to know that the coffee's as bad as ever.

Ralph Peters is on assignment for The Post in the Persian Gulf.

A combat veterans remembrance of the early morning hurrying up in preparation to wait is somewhat different than that of Mr. Peters. He should have embedded with the Navy if he wanted good coffee, though. But that's another sign of privilege. ANY coffee is good coffee when you can get it.

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