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DEMONS IN THE DESERT ARE OFTEN ELUSIVE TO MEMBERS OF FALLS UNIT

"I want you to know," said Air Force Staff Sgt. Susha Castrelo of Buffalo, holding up a jar containing a pickled sand viper, "that when I put this in here I thought it was dead, but it wasn't."

Enemies often aren't what they seem, in the Arabian desert. Sometimes, like the 2-inch baby centipede one airman at Castrelo's base found when shaking out a pair of pants in the morning, they aren't where you expect them, either.

I spent some time this month with a reserve unit from Niagara Falls, stationed 10,324 miles away in an Arab nation on the rim of the Persian Gulf. My time with the men and women of the 914th Tactical Airlift Group was limited by the visa granted by the host country, but flooded with impressions and earnest conversations; time enough, I think, to take some measure of the demons being faced in this desert.

Until and unless the shooting starts, the soldiers, sailors and fliers serving in Operation Desert Shield are battling foes more elusive than Saddam Hussein. They will train for combat -- but their spirits will grapple with wraiths less real but more demoralizing than Iraqi troops.

Some are common to every war, every crisis far from home -- loneliness, fear, separation from friends and loved ones, especially hard during the holidays.

Others may be unique, to this crisis in the sand.

Operation Desert Shield could prove a disaster, for the armed forces reserves.

The disaster won't come on the battlefield. The "total force" concept is being proved in this massive military build-up as regular active-duty units mesh smoothly with the citizen soldiers and airmen of the Reserves and the National Guard.

It will come later, when the sand settles and the troops return home.

The Reserves and the Guard will have trouble keeping qualified, highly trained weekend warriors, who until now have willingly put in more than the nominal weekend to bolster the roll and preparedness of the reserves. They may, in fact, have trouble keeping enough people to fill the rosters.

"For something like this I'd normally expect about 10 percent attrition after we get home," said one commander of a reserve unit that has seen its expected 90-day duty tour doubled by Pentagon decisions and a White House call for more troops in the gulf. "After the extension, I expect it'll be much higher."

It would be easy to misunderstand the bitterness among the reservists. For the 914th, activation for Desert Shield duty was the first call-up for the unit in 22 years. The three Coast Guard port security units in Great Lakes cities, including Buffalo, were the first reserve units activated in the history of that service.

But not one reservist among the hundreds I talked to felt betrayed by the call-up, or questioned the right of the government to send him to the gulf.

It's what they train for. It's part of the commitment in the contracts they sign. They know that, emphasize it themselves, and back their commitment with top-flight performances overseas.

Many reservists on active duty in this crisis, in fact, were volunteers -- men and women, like the commander of a huge C-5 Galaxy transport or the nurse running medevac missions from a Navy hospital ship, who signed on early to help the cause. But now, their tours have been involuntarily extended.

"A lot of us volunteered, and we came over and were actually doing more flying than we are now," said an Air Force major who normally flies for Northwestern Airlines. "But then they extended us and just yanked us out of our lives."

"I've been here for my 90 days, but now my unit back in California has just been called up and I'm being 'activated in place' for another 180," sighed the nurse.

"Hopefully, we won't have a war," said the C-5 commander, a lieutenant colonel now earning less than half his civilian salary as a veteran Delta Airlines pilot. "We believe in the reserve program, but it'll take a hit with me -- I'm retiring as soon as this is over."

The extension of tours has become a lightning rod for discontent. Original call-ups were for 90 days; units now are called for 180, and the possibility of year-long service looms. But even the anger of those who planned to be home by now is only symptomatic.

The real enemies aren't in the desert at all, yet. They're right here at home.

What preys upon the spirits of those I talked to and lived with in the lands of Arabia isn't the hardship they face; it's the hardship they've imposed on their families.

"I expect we'll have some bankruptcies when this is over," said an officer with the 914th at the air base known only as Mirage.

Emotional hardship is one thing. Separation -- especially separation that is unexpectedly doubled, before plans for a major arms build-up reveal any reason for the move -- is difficult, even without a holiday season to deepen the loneliness on both sides.

Financial hardship is another. The Reserves always have relied on strong support from civilian employers. This time, not all the employers have come through.

Some employers will make up the difference between military and civilian pay; a rare few will continue full civilian salaries, even though the reservist also draws a military paycheck. But most employers don't provide any pay while the worker is away, simply abiding by the law that requires them to hold the reservist's job.

Health benefits, too, are a major issue. The military's health insurance is a red-tape maze based on reimbursement plans, and even those employers whose very existence is based on the concept of public service have added to family woes. Buffalo, Erie County, West Seneca and some others have decided to support their reservists by extending benefits, but there are several local municipalities more interested in saving a few budget dollars.

In many cases, family budgets have been crippled. Relief from mortgage payments and other burdens incurred by those used to higher income is available by law, but there are gray areas -- early in this conflict, some of those who sought Soldiers and Sailors Relief Act help found their credit cards being canceled.

There are gray areas, too, in more nebulous areas. The law says no to denial of normal career advancement or pay and benefit increases because of reserve service, but that's hard to judge; ironically, the worst reputation accorded by the reservists goes to the U.S. Postal Service.

The military has provided support centers, to help reservists' families at home. But the damage is real, 10,000 miles farther east.

It preys upon the men and women who work long, hard days and live in tiny compounds surrounded by razor wire, security checkpoints and sand. It saps their spirit, as much as or more than the heat.

The men and women from the 914th and the Coast Guard's 360th Port Security Unit don't have it hard, by Desert Shield standards. Their living conditions and meals are far better than those faced by Marine Corps and Army units deep in the desert, and they know it.

But the sand -- light, powdery sand that can't even be used to make cement -- drifts everywhere, into everything. The 914th's four-engined transports line two sides of the camp and a runway lines a third, providing a constant din through the long days and nights. Flies are aggressive, seeking the moisture of lips and nose and eyes.

Water is consumed constantly, but the skin dries just as rapidly. Temperatures are down into the 80s now, just before the onset of the sandy windstorms of winter, but when the airmen first arrived, to scrape up to eight inches of pigeon droppings from the floor of an old British hangar and work on the metal skins of aircraft parked on simmering pavement, afternoons topped 120 degrees.

In that kind of heat, the paper wastes from the latrines simply went into a hanging plastic bag; the rudimentary sanitary system wouldn't accept toilet paper.

"Let them know it's no vacation," said Staff Sgt. Jim Cooke of North Tonawanda, a medic. "The conditions here aren't bad -- but it's what's inside that counts."

"The biggest thing to get to the people back home is that we appreciate their support," said John Sentman, loadmaster on one of the unit's C-130 Hercules transports. "Without it, we couldn't get through."

During long hours at Dhahran in Saudi Arabia, I watched the controlled chaos of a major distribution point for the men and materials of war. The road of engines filled the hot night, and trucks and front-end loaders churned the sand into clouds of dust swirling in the criss-crossing beams of headlights.

On the airfield, heavily laden Galaxies dropped from the skies like regularly-spaced pearls strung on a necklace; F-15s and F-16s mixed with the fighters of other nations for launch after launch, trailing flames deep into the blackness of the sky.

Staff Sgt. Kristie Demetres of South Carolina brushed a wisp of hair from her eyes, and paused to swap stories of home. Her job as a restaurant manager was gone, now, after a call-up that left her with a military salary only half as big as her former paycheck; she's a single parent, and her 3-year-old has been on the phone crying because she won't let him come see her just for a minute, even if he promises to go back right away.

Rumor had it her company, included some of the women, would be heading out next week to help with an expanding military city just eight miles from the Iraqi border, she added.

There was pain in her eyes, when she spoke of her child, but her smile never faltered. "Hey, hope you guys get out of here soon," she said before turning to snug down the straps on yet another pallet of cargo. "Have a good flight back."

I turned, too, and stepped beyond the glare of floodlights and the hard concrete approaches to Kristie's hangar. I stood alone, to watch the fighters trace their incandescent paths toward the starry night -- and, for just a moment, to water with tears the remorseless sands of the endless, endless desert.

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