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The evening call to prayer echoes through the still air in a port city as the sun sinks behind the dome and minaret of a mosque.

In a land deeply rooted in religion and tradition, such things are taken for granted. Not so traditional, nor so expected, is the presence of American troops and other foreign military forces on the sacred sands of the Arabian desert.

The presence grows stronger daily as huge long-range transports glide in from the skies like regularly spaced pearls on a string.

The men and materials of war arrive in Saudi Arabia at places with names such as Dhahran and Riyadh. From there, aircraft such as the C-130s from the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Base find new service as haulers for medium-size loads of cargo and people across the seemingly endless sands of the desert.

Airplanes crisscross the Empty Quarter and fly within a few miles of Iraq and occupied Kuwait. Each carries seven cases and two jugs of bottled water for its five-member crew -- just in case.

And the bases themselves are cities built on sand. I have lived in one for three days now, in a country I can't even name publicly, and my last flight across Arabia will leave me torn with emotion.

My short time here has been spent with the men and women of the 1650th Tactical Airlift Wing, in a Persian Gulf country that the news media are not yet permitted to identify. But I can put a name to the demon in this desert, and that name is loneliness.

More than 200 reservists with the 914th Tactical Airlift Group of Niagara Falls, a part of the composite cargo wing, are coping with the frustrations of an unexpected extension of their time here, and with separation from their families during the holidays.

Loneliness is the worst of their enemies. They have made their air base as comfortable as they can, and they don't have it nearly as rough as soldiers and Marines in the Saudi Arabian desert near Kuwait.

Air crews fly to the front. But if the Niagara River were the Kuwait border, this airfield would be in Connecticut -- and the best Iraqi missiles from beyond the river would fall short before reaching Albany.

There is air conditioning -- a necessity for those who spend long working hours on asphalt and concrete in the brutal desert heat. Meals are catered by a local business, although a self-contained field kitchen is planned.

The nation that serves as host to them is less restrictive than Saudi Arabia, but this is no vacation. Days and nights are filled with the roar of airplanes only a few yards away, and the sands conceal huge camel spiders, dung beetles and an occasional small sand viper.

The days seem endless, with only Sunday's church services and the Monday posting of football scores to mark the passage of another week.

In three days -- the maximum allowed to me by the nation that is host to Mirage Air Base -- I have come to know the problems and the triumphs of these men and women. And I have come to respect their dedication and sympathize with their hardships.

I can come home; they cannot. They will stay for the full term of their commitment, and even if they complain, they will try and work with skill and pride.

They have some of the oldest flying machines in the Middle East, but their flying record -- 94 percent on-time mission departures -- also is the best in the area.

The crews and those who support them are special people. When the desert drops away beneath the C-130 carrying me from Mirage, a piece of my heart will stay with them.

I have covered their story as a journalist, but I have learned to appreciate the sacrifices made by the reservists and their families, whose lives have been interrupted by the crisis in the gulf.

As I leave, I wear a wrist band that air crews here will wear until Saddam Hussein's forces leave Kuwait or the last Americans come home.

Someday, with luck, the airman who made it will return and cut it free.

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